Last night Justin Wilson came on in relief and pitched three perfect innings, striking out two. Wilson’s stuff looked great, with a fastball that was touching 97, and consistently in the mid-90s. He also was flashing a great curveball with a big break that finished consistently down in the zone. Wilson has only pitched nine innings in his major league career, spread out between last September and the start of this season. That means most Pirates fans haven’t had a chance to see him over a long period of time, leaving some questions about his stuff. I’ve followed Wilson since he broke into pro ball, seeing the majority of his starts while he was in Lynchburg, and seeing him at least once a year each year after that. Here is my breakdown of the pros and cons for Wilson.
The big topic with Wilson is his control. That didn’t show up last night, as he threw three innings with no hits and no walks. But Wilson has a career 4.5 BB/9 ratio in 518.2 innings in the minors. If you’re thinking “maybe last night is a sign that his control problems are behind him”, then you’re going to be extremely frustrated in the future.
Wilson isn’t like a lot of guys with control problems. In some starts the control issues won’t be there, and he will be absolutely dominant. We saw that last night. Then there will be other starts where control is a huge problem, and the outing will turn into a roller coaster ride. A prime example of this came early last season. Wilson combined on a no-hitter early in the season, throwing 107 pitches over 7.1 no-hit innings. In his next start he was removed after throwing 95 pitches in four innings, walking three in the process. And leading up to that no-hitter, Wilson had starts where he walked six in five innings, and five in five innings.
When Wilson has control of his pitches, he looks like a potential ace. But the fact that he’s not consistent with that control limits his upside to more of a 3-5 starter or a late inning reliever.
What you saw last night out of Wilson was legit. He’s got some of the best stuff in the system. As a starter, his fastball sits in the 92-94 range, touching 96. As a reliever he sits in the mid-90s, much like last night. In the past he has touched as high as 99 MPH, although that only happened twice, and hasn’t happened since.
Last night we saw the curveball, and saw why that is his best off-speed pitch. Wilson also throws a slider and a changeup. The slider is more like a cutter. He threw the pitch several times last night, ranging from 87-92. The pitch looked more like a slower version of his fastball, just with more late movement. However, he didn’t command the pitch as well as he did the curveball. Wilson also throws a changeup, which is probably his second best off-speed pitch, and effective when he’s in the rotation.
Overall, Wilson has four pitches that can be average or better. His fastball and curveball are above average or better, with last night being more of the “better”.
Starting vs Relieving
Most pitchers see an improvement when they move from the rotation to the bullpen. Maybe they don’t give up as many hits, or maybe they see an improvement with their command. That’s not the case with Wilson. His fastball does go up a few notches out of the bullpen, sitting in the 94-96 range, rather than 92-94. However, the inconsistent control is still there. Wilson struggles with consistency from appearance to appearance whether he’s in the bullpen or in the rotation. For that reason, there’s no real benefit to keeping him in the bullpen over the long-term. Eventually he’s going to frustrate Pirates fans, kind of in the way that Jonathan Sanchez will probably frustrate Pirates fans at times this year.
That does bring up the topic of why the Pirates didn’t just let Wilson be a starter. The best answer for that is probably due to his track record. Wilson had no track record in the majors. In the minors he had a pretty consistent track record where three things would happen: he’d give up a lot of walks, strike out a lot of hitters, and wouldn’t give up many hits. His biggest weakness, the walks, were countered by the high strikeouts and the low hits. Last year Wilson gave up six hits per nine innings and struck out a batter an inning.
We know the control problems are going to carry over to the majors. But can Wilson strike out a batter an inning and keep such a low batting average against opposing hitters in the majors? That’s a big assumption to just expect those numbers to carry over.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Sanchez has shown that he can have success in the majors, even with control issues. From 2009 to 2011 he had a 4.9 BB/9 ratio in 458 innings. However, he posted a 3.75 ERA in that span, thanks to a 9.5 K/9 and a 7.0 H/9. Like Wilson in the minors, Sanchez was countering the walks with a low average and a lot of strikeouts.
Wilson is in a good situation in the bullpen. He can get major league innings, and work as a multi-inning reliever like last night. If he shows the ability to strike out a lot of hitters and keep the hit count low, the Pirates could consider him for the rotation after the 2013 season.
As for the short-term rotation, that’s probably not going to happen. Even if Wandy Rodriguez goes on the disabled list, Wilson would need to be stretched out. He threw three innings last night. If he’s a spot starter the next time around, he would probably be limited to four innings, with Jeanmar Gomez taking the other innings. In Spring Training, starters didn’t go from three innings to full starts. They went from three to four, then after 1-2 starts at four they went to five, then the regular season. The only way to stretch Wilson out would be to send him down to Triple-A for a few weeks. The Pirates would be better off keeping him in the majors, letting him get experience against major league hitters, and using guys like Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin as immediate rotation depth.