When discussing Trevor Williams’ success as a first-year major-league starting pitcher last summer, Clint Hurdle would often refer to Williams’ ability to utilize both sides of the strike zone.
Using his fastball and slider primarily, Williams was able to ‘dot up’ the inside and outside corners of the plate in 2017, keeping hitters of both handedness from settling in. At least, that’s how it worked when the San Diego native was at his best.
After allowing eight runs (six earned) in his first start of last season, in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, Williams had a 3.65 ERA in 135 2/3 innings, all with stuff that we might characterize as unremarkable.
“I don’t have premium velocity,” Williams told me late in spring training. “I don’t have a devastating breaking ball. What I’m good at is my ability to locate well, the ability to move the ball around the plate in all four quadrants.”
Williams came up through the Marlins’ and Pirates’ organizations renowned for his sinking fastball, but he actually used his four-seamer about twice as often as the running two-seamer last year.
He intends to keep that up in 2018 and not pigeonhole himself as a guy who prefers to work down in the zone. Especially in an era of ‘on-plane’ swings that are designed to create optimum launch angles from low deliveries, pitchers simply must work above the belt more often.
“‘Willy’ has got to be able to use all four pitches and hit all four corners of the strike zone,” Ray Searage said.
The four-pitch mix Searage refers to includes a changeup that has similar arm-side movement as Williams’ sinker. But that four-seamer — particularly at the top of the zone and above — will be key to keeping hitters off kilter.
“Changing eye levels on some guys is something that will help my non-premier velocity look premier,” said Williams, who averaged 93 mph with his four-seamer in 2017. “You have to have that ‘perceived velocity.’ It’s something that’s been drilled in my head from a young age.”
Echoing a similar sentiment expressed by Jameson Taillon, Williams said he’s gained greater insight into the difficulties of hitting by taking regular at-bats at the Triple-A and major-league levels.
It seems that staring down some of the planet’s best pitchers only reinforced to Williams how the eyes and brain respond to a variety of pitch locations. For example, a pitch that’s up and in looks faster to the hitter than it actually is, and it forces the hitter to recalibrate his sight.
“It’s perceived faster,” Williams explained. “You don’t realize until you start hitting, that a low-and-away pitch looks really hard to hit after you come up and in. It looks like a ball the whole way. That’s why a lot of hitters will shake their heads (when a down-and-away pitch is called a strike) but when you look at the video, it’s definitely a strike. But you might have come in the pitch before to back them off the plate.”
This type of thing comes as second nature to Williams, who will turn 26 next month. His precocious pitching savvy at Arizona State University convinced the Marlins to make him a second-round draft pick in 2013.
According to Searage, Williams’ upbringing in Southern California and further refinement in Tempe, Ariz., have him a leg up on someone like Chad Kuhl, whose competitive season in Delaware was limited by the realities of weather.
“You look where Williams came from, Arizona State and that baseball atmosphere out there,” Searage said. “It forces you to pitch, and learn how to pitch.”
Williams has a variety of fancy major-league tools at his disposal now, including a pair of pitching coaches in Searage and the newly-promoted Justin Meccage. But Williams might be ahead of all of his fellow ‘classmates’ — Taillon, Kuhl, Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow — in that most desired trait: Pitch-ability.
“If you can’t throw strikes, you’re not going to pitch for a long time,” Williams said. “If you can’t throw a pitch where you want to in any count, you’re not going to be successful at the major-league level, so that’s something I wanted to get great at.”
And if Williams didn’t have his priorities straight at any point last season, being a big-league starter for five months reinforced the necessity of winning the relentless strategic battle between pitcher and hitter.
“Now that I’ve had a year under my belt, I know what it takes to have success and I know what gives you failure,” Williams said. “Constantly re-assessing what you’re doing. Constantly changing because the hitters are making adjustments to you as well. Just showing some feel every fifth day and giving the club a chance to win the ballgame.”