Let’s talk about Brian Wilson. Shut up, yes, we have to. After he helped to kick away Saturday’s game, I saw a lot of chatter online about how he didn’t “deserve to make the playoff roster,” and that’s what I was going to talk about today. I wasn’t going to say that he’s good — even the defense that he hadn’t given up an earned run in the previous month is somewhat shot down by the fact that he’d struck out only 4 of those 23 batters — but the point was going to be that “deserve” has absolutely nothing to do with it, nor does salary, because it’s pretty hard to argue that the Dodgers have seven better relievers. He’ll be on the playoff roster. Deal with it.
We’ll get to that, I guess, and assuming that the Dodgers win at least one game against the Giants I’ll have a first look at a playoff roster this week. But for now, here’s what’s interesting to me: Wilson’s claim, as reported by Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, that his velocity drop has been on purpose:
“When I came back last year, if you guys were looking, I was 89, 91 (mph) and when I decided to bring it up to 95 was the playoffs and not really any time before that,” said Wilson who said he did not throw a fastball Saturday, just cut fastballs. “It was 96 at the beginning of (this) year but giving up runs so it’s like a double-edged sword. If I have velocity and I’m giving up runs, then what is it? Either you can’t execute pitches or I throw what I can get people out with then – is there a velocity issue?
There’s not a lot of controversy about that part. Wilson averaged 97 mph on his fastball in 2009, nearly the same in 2010, then 95 in 2011 before his his elbow popped early in 2012. When he joined the Dodgers last year, he averaged 94.4 mph, and that’s down to 93.6 mph this year; as he indicated, it’s been dropping as the season has gone on. That’s not unusual, really, for a pitcher with more than a decade of professional experience. What’s intriguing, really, is Wilson’s perception about it.
Let’s break this down into two parts. First, here again is what Wilson said about his 2013:
“When I came back last year, if you guys were looking, I was 89, 91 (mph) and when I decided to bring it up to 95 was the playoffs and not really any time before that,”
Well… ish? Using the fantastic Brooks database, here’s Wilson’s appearances as a Dodger from last year, showing only the fourseam and cutter and cutting out curves, sinkers, changes, etc., to just look at velocity:
Here’s the thing, though. Wilson generally throws cutters. In 2013, he threw 69.45% cutters, and just 15.43% fourseam fastballs. He didn’t have a single game, playoffs included, in which he threw more fourseamers than cutters. It’s actually probably misleading to show it this way, because only once did he throw more than four four-seamers in a game; only three times did he throw fewer than five cutters in a game. Let’s stick with cutters. If Wilson’s saying he came back throwing 89, well, yes. If he’s saying he “dialed it up to 95 in the playoffs and not really any time before that,” well, no. His cutter never gets thrown that fast. If he’s saying he got his fourseamer up to 95, yes, but he also did that plenty of times before, too.
So that part doesn’t really seem to pass the sniff test. How about his 2014 issues?
“It was 96 at the beginning of (this) year but giving up runs so it’s like a double-edged sword. If I have velocity and I’m giving up runs, then what is it? Either you can’t execute pitches or I throw what I can get people out with then – is there a velocity issue?
Here’s his 2014 velocity logs, skipping the Australia series (which didn’t have the usual PITCHf/x tracking) and noting that he missed the first few weeks on the disabled list with a tender elbow:
We run, again, into the same issue. Wilson says that he was hitting 96 at the beginning of the year, but that’s only somewhat true. According to Baseball Savant, he did it just four times, all in April and May, and none hurt him. (The four were a fly out, ball, called strike, and foul.)
What he appears to be saying is that he’s able to bring back the velocity when he wants to, and that he’s saving himself for big spots. But is that really true? Does velocity matter for his performance? We can test this. Here’s how. Again using Baseball Savant, here’s how he’s done as a Dodger, including last year, at each level of velocity, across all pitches. This is imperfect. I already don’t love this, because of the small sample sizes and because it uses batting average and because it’s only counting the final pitches of plate appearances that end in balls in play. That’s partially because that’s what Baseball Savant offers, but also because we’re trying to identify his hittability. It’s close enough.
The answer is… drum roll please… it doesn’t seem to matter! Again, because of the sample sizes, I’m not going to say anything definitive about these, but from what we have here, other than a weird blip at 92, Wilson is generally kind of hard to hit. The problem, really, is less about velocity — he is still striking out 25% of the hitters he faces, which is excellent — than it is about control and BABIP. Wilson’s walk rate of 13.0% is both higher than his career rate and more than a quality reliever can handle. His BABIP of .347 is partially due to bad luck, partially because his cutter isn’t moving the way it used to…
…and partially because he’s not throwing it as hard.
This isn’t rocket science, really. A hard cutter thrown with control and good movement in front of quality defense is a fantastic pitch. A cutter missing most or all of those things is less so. Even if Wilson can suddenly “turn it on” — a questionable assertion at best — it may not be enough. In a Dodger bullpen that has only two reliable pieces in Kenley Jansen & J.P. Howell, that could be a big issue.