In 2013, Justin Wilson looked like he was on his way to becoming a dominant left-handed relief pitcher for years to come. The solid performance of the Pirates’ bullpen in 2013 was one of the biggest reasons for their 94-win season. Wilson played a big role in it, posting a 2.03 ERA to go along with 59 strikeouts in 73.1 innings of work.
But the 2014 bullpen hasn’t been as dominant, and neither has Wilson. His ERA has grown to 4.31 this season. Interestingly, his xFIP this season of 3.88 is similar to his 3.82 xFIP in 2013, indicating that maybe Wilson’s performance is regressing to the level more consistent with the metrics.
Judging a relief pitcher’s season solely on his ERA can be misleading, as it doesn’t always tell the whole story. So what are the differences between Wilson’s two seasons?
One big difference has been Wilson’s command. Wilson’s walk rate his increased to 4.6 BB/9 this season, compared with 3.4 in 2013. Throughout Wilson’s professional career, his control problems have been well documented. Wilson’s fastball command has been his Achilles heel, and often times his success on the mound depends on how well he is commanding that pitch. Wilson says the big key for him is throwing first pitch strikes, and getting ahead in counts.
“Strike one is a big pitch for me, getting ahead of guys. Those days where I am ahead in counts is usually a better outing,” Wilson said.
Pitching Coach Ray Searage reiterated how important Wilson’s fastball command is, noting that his secondary pitches are much more effective when he is ahead in counts, just like any other pitcher.
Another reason for Wilson’s struggles this season is his .289 BABIP, which is up from .229 in 2013. While some of this could be attributed to his numbers regressing to the league average, decreased command of Wilson’s fastball also plays a role in his higher BABIP.
What role has his secondary pitch effectiveness played in Wilson’s regression this season?
Wilson relies mostly on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs that sit in the upper 90s, while mixing in cutters that play in the lower 90s, and curveballs that sit in the lower 80s. In 2013 he threw his cutter 11.6% of the time, while using his curve ball 12% of the time.
This year, Wilson has drastically cut down on the usage of his curveball, only throwing it 5.7% of the time, while upping the usage of his cutter to 19.1% of the time. Searage said that he wants Wilson to pitch to his strengths, and his strength is his power arm.
“Right now those two pitches (fastball and cutter) are working for him extremely well,” Searage explained. “He’s got good angle and the velocity is usually around 96-97, and his cutter is pretty consistent at 90-91-92. With the movement on the cutter, it makes the little high riser that he has [on his fastballs] tougher to hit too.”
Wilson claimed that he has had more confidence in his cutter this season than he had last season.
“I probably used [my curveball] a little more last year, but I don’t think my cutter was as good last year as it is this year. It’s going to be a [good] pitch for me.”
The numbers back up Wilson’s claim on the cutter. He had a .227 BAA last year on the cutter. He has a .189 BAA this year, and has already thrown the pitch 45 more times. He has also seen the offering turn into a strikeout pitch, going from a 10.9% strikeout rate in 2013 to 25.9% this year. However, the walks have increased from 2.2% to 8.6%.
Despite Wilson’s up and down season, Searage is still very encouraged with the progress Wilson has made.
“He is learning and he is maturing as we go at the Major League level,” Searage said. “Which is a big plus because you don’t just come up here and just have everything done, everything taken care of. He’s starting to learn the hitters. He has a better idea on how to set up hitters and what they’re looking for.”
An encouraging sign with Wilson is that he has not lost velocity with his fastball, and his strikeout rate has actually gone up, from 22.2% in 2013, to 25.7% this season. His control has stayed the same with the pitch, posting a 12% walk rate each season.
Keeping in mind that Wilson is still only 27 years old and completing only his second full season in the Major Leagues, his regression this year could be a classic case of hitters adjusting to Wilson, and now Wilson is working to adjust back to the league. It’s also possible that he could turn into a nice fastball/cutter pitcher with more usage of the latter offering. This is only the second year that Wilson has used the pitch, and he has shown some improvements with it. If he improves the control in the future, it could be a nice out pitch to pair with his fastball.
The Pirates have missed the 2013 version of Justin Wilson, and getting that pitcher back would go a long way to solidifying the back-end of the bullpen that has given up too many late-inning leads this season.