Is Brian Wilson the Right Man for the Detroit Tigers' Closer Job?

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Is Brian Wilson the Right Man for the Detroit Tigers' Closer Job?
USA Today

The Detroit Tigers were linked to seemingly every "proven closer" under the sun last winter. In the end, general manager Dave Dombrowski moved to acquire none of them.

The closer search is on again this winter. This time, however, it sounds like Dombrowski sees a guy he actually likes: Brian Wilson.

According to Lynn Henning of the Detroit News, the Tigers are "moving towards a possible deal" with the 31-year-old right-hander, formerly of the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. In related news, Henning also noted that the Tigers have been "aggressively hunting" a closer, preferably one with a "younger, more dynamic arm" than that of the 36-year-old Joaquin Benoit. 

Color me fascinated. More to the point, color me...well, nodding my head in approval if you can manage that level of artisticness (trademark pending).  

It's hard to pass complete judgment on the Tigers' apparent interest in Wilson without knowing any terms. But since Dombrowski declined to chase Rafael Soriano last winter and is apparently fixing to sign Wilson over Joe Nathan this winter, I feel safe in speculating that the terms would be modest. Dombrowski may want a closer, but he doesn't seem dumb enough to pay "proven closer" prices.

In this case, paying a more subdued price for Wilson to step in as the club's closer is easily justified. He's a guy who absolutely has the goods to outperform a modestly priced contract.

We naturally have to start with how Wilson performed in 2013. He started his comeback from a 2012 Tommy John operation—unfortunately not his first—in August, and quickly gathered steam.

When it was all over, he did this in the regular season and the postseason:

Brian Wilson's 2013 Comeback
Split GP IP ERA WHIP K% BB% K/BB
Regular Season 18 13.2 0.66 0.91 26.5 8.2 3.3
Postseason 6 6.0 0.00 1.00 33.3 8.3 4.0
Total 24 19.2 0.47 0.94 28.8 8.2 3.5

Baseball-Reference.com

The "DANGER: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" caveat applies here. A total of 19.2 innings isn't a whole lot. Certainly not enough to draw definitive conclusions about a guy. If it were, Wilson would be drawing a ton more interest as a free agent than he seems to be.

But still, wow. That's one earned run allowed in 24 appearances, and a strikeout rate that stands tall over his 24.8 career mark. And for a guy who hadn't pitched in over a year, an 8.2 walk rate is pretty darned impressive.

In addition, Wilson was keeping the ball on the ground quite a bit. Per FanGraphs, his regular-season GB percent was 56.3. In the postseason, it was 71.4.

Never mind the ERA and the WHIP. The strikeouts, walks and ground balls represent the really exciting aspect of Wilson's comeback. There's only so much a pitcher can do to control how much success he has, but striking batters out, limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground is about as good a recipe for success as there is.

Can Wilson keep this up? That depends on what or whom you ask.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

If you ask a what, your best move is to consult some sort of projection system. Steamer's a good one, and if we pluck Wilson's Steamer projections for 2014 from FanGraphs and compare them to his 2013 production, we get:

Brian Wilson's 2013 Season vs. Steamer
Split GP IP ERA WHIP K% BB% K/BB
2013 Season 24 19.2 0.47 0.94 28.8 8.2 3.5
2014 Projection 55 55.0 3.37 1.29 22.9 9.6 2.4

FanGraphs

In other words: No, Wilson's not going to be an absolutely dominant pitcher again in 2014.

ZiPS is another good projection system, but, alas, it would seem that ZiPS maestro Dan Szymborski is keeping the figures to himself for the time being.

However, Szymborski did chime in on Twitter:

In other words, the same refrain: No, Wilson's not going to be an absolutely dominant pitcher again in 2014.

Lackluster projections admittedly aren't the only reasons to be skeptical about Wilson. One thing I noticed is that 11 of his 21 strikeouts were of the looking variety. That's over 50 percent, a figure that demolishes his pre-2013 rate of 31 percent and the 2013 league average of 24 percent. My powers of logic tells me that's going to be a hard feat to repeat.

Then there's Wilson's fastball velocity. Per FanGraphs, the Baseball Info Solutions data says he worked in the 95-96 range in his heyday in 2009-2010. In 2011, a year during which he told the San Francisco Chronicle he was pitching with considerable elbow pain, he averaged 94.3 miles per hour.

But in 2013? Just 93.2 miles per hour.

So why be optimistic?

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One reason is that decreased velocity didn't mean a decreased ability to miss bats in 2013. It's a small sample size number, but FanGraphs has his 2013 swinging-strike percentage at 9.2 percent. That's a tick higher than his career rate of 8.9 percent.

Wilson kept it up in the postseason. Though it doesn't see such things exactly the same way that FanGraphs does, Baseball-Reference.com says that Wilson's swinging-strike percentage in October was 12 percent.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, there was something else going on: Wilson was reaching back for some extra velocity. As Brooks Baseball can vouch, there was a spike in Wilson's heat in October. He was regularly throwing 95 miles per hour.

Maybe that was Wilson's old arm strength returning to him. Or maybe it was just adrenaline. Either way, it's a sign that his old mid-90s velocity isn't ancient history even after two Tommy John surgeries. Even if he can only do so on occasion, his elbow can still handle getting the ball up there in a real hurry.

If you're worried that he can't do so all the time, well, don't be. There's more to pitching than velocity, after all. Pitch selection, for example, is sort of important.

Speaking of that, did you notice the trend at play when you went and looked at Wilson's velocity earlier? If not, well, this is it right here:

Brian Wilson's Pitch Selection
Season Fastball % Cutter %
2006 77.8% 1.4%
2007 69.9% 3.8%
2008 70.9% 13.1%
2009 69.3% 24.5%
2010 60.9% 35.0%
2011 52.9% 46.1%
2012 23.2% 67.9%
2013 24.6% 74.9%

FanGraphs

As time has gone on, Wilson has become less and less dependent on his heat and more and more dependent on his cutter. And after teasing an extremely cutter-heavy approach in the two appearances he made in 2012, he picked up where he left off upon his return in 2013.

Wilson also has a two-seamer in addition to a classic four-seam fastball. It's a pitch he unveiled to much acclaim in 2011. And between the regular season and the postseason, Brooks Baseball says that Wilson threw his two-seamer almost as often as he threw his four-seamer in 2013.

Nothing forces a pitcher to reinvent himself quite like leaking velocity. That's exactly what Wilson has done, moving away from a pitcher who got by on velocity and toward a pitcher who is going to get by on movement.

To study said movement, we shall go to the video.

Here's one of Wilson getting Carlos Beltran looking on a cutter on the outside corner:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And if you watch to the end of this video, you'll see a two-seamer that got Juan Perez looking:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That cutter? Pretty good.

That two-seamer? Also pretty good.

And since it's there to be noted, the control to put those pitches where they were put? Another pretty good thing. Maybe not 50-percent-looking-strikeouts good, mind you, but pretty good.

Here at the end, we re-acknowledge that the absurd numbers that Wilson compiled in his comeback are extremely unlikely to happen again. There's a lot going right, and then there's a bit too much going right. Wilson's comeback was a case of the latter.

But since Wilson compiled those absurd numbers with the cunning use of filthy-moving pitches and good location that got him lots of strikeouts and ground balls and kept his walks at a decent rate, there's plenty to like about how he attacked his comeback. And that, in turn, means there's plenty to like about him going forward.

Even if the terms end up being less modest than one figures they will be, Dombrowski and the Tigers have their eyes on a darn fine choice for their closer role.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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