clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tigers' Justin Wilson is more than a left-handed specialist

He's not Ian Krol or even Phil Coke -- this guy actually gets people out.

Elsa/Getty Images

Go ahead, admit it. You probably thought it, most people probably thought it. The Tigers acquire a left-handed relief pitcher who manager Brad Ausmus has probably already penciled in as "the seventh inning guy." You don't know much, if anything, about him, except that he's a lefty, so he's almost certainly no more than a LOOGY.

Me too...but we are both wrong. Very, very wrong.

The trade -- Wilson in exchange for two minor league arms -- should be welcome news for Tigers fans more than used to reliever reverse after their bullpen finished a dismal 27th in the majors with a 4.38 ERA in 2015. A lefty power arm who can actually be trusted against right-handed bats in pressure situations late in games? Well, wouldn't that just be fine and dandy.

Let's start by taking a look at his career splits which backup rather nicely the premise of this article. It becomes immediately obvious that these aren't the numbers of your typical lefty.

vs. LHB 68.0 .233 .309 .312 .282 7.81 3.31 0.40 1.22 3.13
vs. RHB 131.1 .207 .300 .303 .272 9.18 3.84 0.55 1.19 3.27

These are not quite remarkable enough to be called reverse splits, as they are very similar looking lines, yet there are some things to take away from it. While the FIP and walks per nine innings ever so slightly favor the lefties, many of the more crucial numbers do not. Righties hit significantly worse against Wilson; they get on base at a lower clip, they slug less, they strike out more, and while they do walk more and hit a handful more home runs against him, the difference is negligible, and absolutely offset by the other results.

What intrigued me next was to see if I could find out how Wilson is having this success against right-handed hitters and why they seem to struggle to do much of anything against him. First, I wanted to know if there is anything in how he varies his pitch usage against lefties and righties. Honestly, there really wasn't. Wilson is very fastball dominant to both left and right-handed batters with nearly the same percentage of breaking stuff thrown in. However, what if there was more to be discovered in where he likes to locate against different hands?

Wilson's main area of focus against lefties is low and away, not unsurprising at all and very classic behaviour. What is interesting is that he doesn't switch to the other side of the plate against the righties, very much the opposite.

He still pounds approximately the same areas, what was low and away to the left handed hitter now becomes low and middle in to the righthander. Granted, there are probably more pitches left-centre-cut than Wilson would otherwise like but, essentially, he attacks both hands of hitter in exactly the same fashion. You might think that a little odd but don't; instead, look where the highest portion of his whiffs against righties come from.

Low and in, high and away. The reason for that I'm going to suggest lies in his pure stuff. He likes to throw his curveball in and tight and the numbers bear this out. Righties hit just .227 with a .297 slugging percentage against the curve, an .068 isolated power (ISO). Wilson has allowed zero -- yes, zero -- home runs off his curve in the entirety of his big league career. This helpless swing from Nolan Reimold might give you an indication as to why.

It may not be a Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander level of vertical drop, but it still falls further than the average big league hook. Wilson is not afraid to offer that pitch directly into the right-handed hitting arc and the above shows why.

What might be more impressive still is his fastball, not just in its velocity (averaging just under 96 miles per hour in 2015) but the late movement on it. A late darting movement away from right-handed hitters is key in Wilson being able to utterly dominate them, to the tune of a .202 batting average and .295 slugging percentage. He gave up a measly four home runs in over 250 at-bats against his fastball. Left-handed pitchers with a fastball that tails in towards a right-handed hitter have to be very precise on location, but Wilson can afford to be a little more relaxed due to the nature of his heat.

I've slowed this down to make it more obvious. Look at the late life drifting away from the right-handed hitter. It's subtle, but still noticeable. There is your reason as to why he loves to go up and away to righties, and why it's his second-highest strikeout quadrant.

It's these sort of characteristics on his pitches to right handed hitters that go a long way to explaining his reverse splits in batted ball numbers, with righties generating less hard hit balls and giving up higher ground ball rates, making for the lowest hard-contact percentage against his entire repertoire throughout his career so far in 2015.

There's plenty of value in a good LOOGY. When the situation calls, they can often get the job done against even the most elite lefty hitters in the game. The problem, however, is that they to have be yanked straight out again when the big right-handed bat lurks in the on-deck circle.

What's better than a good LOOGY? A lefty who can be trusted to handle both, and from what he's produced in his short big league career so far, it would seem Justin Wilson can do just that with some aplomb.