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The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Ten, Justin Wilson

My true love has given me Justin Wilson. Rumors that the Padres have acquired both my true love and Wilson himself are unsubstantiated.

Photo by Ellen Adair.

The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Ten, Justin Wilson


Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Well: Justin Wilson on Day Ten of the Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers. My true love does have a flair for the unexpected. I won’t say it’s a curveball, since Wilson hasn’t thrown a curveball since 2016.

And after all, in the very specific relief pitcher market, my true love is much like the Padres, acquiring every player that the light touches. (A brief rumor circulated yesterday that the Padres were also in talks to acquire my true love. Unsubstantiated.)

Justin Wilson

In some regards, Justin Wilson is the reliever version of his own name. It’s good. It’s a fine, competent name. Nobody messed up here, by naming this child, for example, Dilson Wilson.

But it’s not an overwhelmingly memorable name. Justin Wilson? Is that my brother-in-law’s friend from work? Or wait, is that the guy from high school who dated one of my friends? Maybe a Congressman from Illinois? Or that actually quite capable left-handed relief pitcher with stints on the Pirates, Yankees, Tigers, Cubs and Mets?

No, not the guy with the beard. He’s retired. Fastball/cutter, though, yeah.

What prevents this from being true of Justin Wilson, however, is his ability to limit hard contact. His average exit velocity is in the top 4% of the league, and his hard-hit rate of 28.3% is in the top 8%, comparable to pitchers like Aaron Nola and Zac Gallen in that statistic. Moreover, according to Alexander Chase’s hard hit per nine, which accounts for the number of balls hit at more than 95 mph in a nine-inning span, Wilson also performs well. (Chase explains why HH/9 gives us a more accurate and predictive view of a pitcher’s abilities in this excellent piece.) But with a 6.86 HH/9 this year, and an even lower number in 2019, Wilson actually stands somewhere between Nola’s 7.2 HH/9 and Jacob deGrom’s 6.5.

Ks of Our Lives

And Wilson also achieves this with a well-above-average strikeout rate that has settled around 26.5% over the past two seasons. This represents a decline from his best strikeout season in 2017, when he struck out 32.4% of batters.

That year, Wilson was traded from the Tigers to the Cubs at the deadline, and looked as if he was undergoing a transformation to another echelon of relief pitcher. He had phased out his curveball and fundamentally eliminated a sinker (throwing it less than 2% of the time). The sinker had been unsuccessful as an establishing pitch for him the previous year, with a .369 batting average against. Instead, he began working in a slider, though fundamentally relying on his fastball/cutter combination. I hypothesize that in 2017, batters were adjusting to his new approach, leading to a higher K%. Four years later, it’s clear that his arsenal has settled into an effective, if not elite, groove.

A Dilson Wilson amount of walks

But Wilson has also been prone to control issues, with extremely high walk rates plaguing him, particularly in 2017-18 after incorporating the slider. Even the name Dilson Wilson would be far too good for the roughly 14% walk rate he unleashed in those two years. Fortunately, it has dropped to a merely bad 10-11%, a Robbie Ray or Julio Teheran amount of walks, in the past two seasons with the Mets.

Getting the walks slightly under control in 2019 may help account for his career-best ERA that year, at 2.54 . But his high left-on-base rate in 2019 may have helped out, too. In any case, his 3.34 career FIP gives us a good picture. A Justin Wilson picture, if you will. Plus some walks.

So, Free Agency, we meet again

Given that this is Wilson’s second time to the free agency ball, having last signed a two-year contract with the Mets, he is no longer a debutante. The 33 year-old did miss time in 2019 with elbow soreness, but returned strong and capably pitched in 2020. The FanGraphs crowd speculates $10 million for two years. Wilson seems easily worth that, but in this odd offseason, if he ended up getting a one-year deal, I would not offer to eat my hat.

Or my Justin Wilson holiday-themed t-shirt.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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