After struggling for nearly a full calendar year, Tom Wilhelmsen has been pitching well over the past three weeks while giving some much-needed help to a thin Seattle Mariners bullpen.
Following play Wednesday, Wilhelmsen has thrown 13.2 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest such streak for any reliever in the American League. More importantly, Wilhelmsen has been far better with his command during the streak and could fill an important role for the Mariners moving forward if he continues to pitch well.
Wilhelmsen came up with the Mariners with one of the most interesting journeys to the major leagues you’ll ever hear. Originally in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, Wilhelmsen was suspended in 2004 after testing positive for marijuana and took a five-year hiatus from baseball to work as a bartender before attempting a comeback with Seattle.
But when Wilhelmsen finally cracked the big leagues, it became apparent that the Mariners had more than a good story. Wilhelmsen had an active fastball that could touch the upper 90s to go along with a wicked 12-to-6 curveball.
If Wilhelmsen could get that curveball over constantly, he had the potential to become a special reliever for the Mariners.
After pitching well in 25 games in 2011, Wilhelmsen took over the closer role in June of 2012 and finished the year with 29 saves and a 2.50 ERA while striking out 26.7 percent of opposing batters. He was even better to begin 2013 and emerged as one of the most dominant closers in the league for a brief time.
On June 1, 2013, Wilhelmsen had allowed just nine hits and eight walks in 25 innings to begin the season. He then went into a tailspin that would take him the rest of 2013 and the first month of 2014 to recover from.
Wilhelmsen showed that his stuff hasn’t been the problem in Seattle’s opening series against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by striking out Mike Trout on an absolutely unhittable curveball.
Instead, it was Wilhelmsen's control that was letting him down. Wilhelmsen walked five batters over two-plus innings to begin June 2013 and never really recovered, finishing the year with a walk rate of 13.2 percent.
As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs highlights, Wilhelmsen’s control wasn’t exactly great before 2013, and his sharp decline reflected the volatility of relatively inexperienced closers.
Following a particularly memorable meltdown on August 1 against the Boston Red Sox in which Wilhelmsen gave up four runs without recording an out, the Mariners finally optioned him to Triple-A. Wilhelmsen would return in September, but he lost the closer’s role for good.
During the month in Tacoma, the Mariners attempted to have Wilhelmsen develop a third pitch and become a starter. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs points out that it didn’t go very well.
Many of the same control problems plagued Wilhelmsen to begin 2014. He had three ugly outings during the Mariners’ eight-game losing streak in mid-April, and his walk rate is still over 13 percent for the season.
But something clicked for Wilhelmsen beginning on April 26 with the first outing of his current scoreless streak. Wilhelmsen has walked just four batters since then while striking out 14 and throwing 66 percent of his pitches for strikes entering play Wednesday.
Clearly Wilhelmsen’s control has been the key, but the reason why it has improved is a mystery.
Wilhelmsen himself can't exactly explain the improvement, telling Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune that he hasn't tweaked his delivery or changed his approach and saying “I guess it’s just that time of the cycle. I’m just trying to get ahead of guys. It’s the same (approach). It’s just falling in the zone a little bit better, I guess. I’ll take it.”
Interestingly enough, Wilhelmsen has also used his two-seam fastball and changeup at a much higher rate than previous seasons. By getting his curveball over, Wilhelmsen has been able to use all his pitches more effectively to strike out batters and induce ground balls at a career-high rate.
Wilhelmsen’s best outing came May 7 against the Oakland Athletics, as he pitched two scoreless innings with one hit and zero walks against a lineup that puts a lot of runs on the board and is very patient. The 30-year-old struck out two and used good location to induce weak contact.
If Wilhelmsen continues to pitch well, he will be important to the Mariners’ success going forward. Fernando Rodney is locked into the closer role barring a major meltdown and Danny Farquhar is the ideal candidate for a setup man, but Wilhelmsen could give Seattle a big boost by being a shutdown third arm out of the bullpen.
Chris Young has been serviceable (apart from a bad start earlier Wednesday) and should be the much-needed long man in Seattle’s bullpen once the rotation is at full strength. Stephen Pryor is also on a rehab assignment recovering from a major lat injury and would be an upgrade from someone like Yoervis Medina once fully healthy.
Couple all that with Wilhelmsen’s recent run of success, and the Seattle bullpen could go from middle of the road to a strength. Wilhelmsen has a way to go to erase the past few months, but he is showing some encouraging signs.