Justin Wilson is the latest addition to a Tigers bullpen that has been almost completely overhauled in less than a month's time. You know that part already. You've also probably looked at his relevant stats and been fairly impressed, and maybe you've even watched a YouTube highlight reel of his strikeouts set to awesome/awful faux-metal music, in which case, you're both elated and somehow also angry.
What you may not have considered, however, is how well Justin Wilson performs under pressure.
Pressure is to relief pitching what sandwich-based arguments are to Twitter. You don't want to deal with it, but there's just no escaping it. If you're coming into the game as a reliever, it's probably late in the game, when there's little room for error because there's little time left in the game -- if this thing goes south, your offense may not be able to bail you out before the game ends.
Oh, and there's a good chance your manager is bringing you into the game with a few runners already on base. Have fun!
Justin Wilson understands this. Justin Wilson has totally been there and done that.
If we take a list of non-closer relief pitchers from 2015, set the "qualified" threshold at 40 innings pitched, and then sort them by the highest number of inherited runners, we find our new friend right there in the Top Five:
That's just cruel and unusual punishment for a guy who was a Number Three for the Yankees behind Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, but it says something at the same time: apparently Joe Girardi trusted Wilson to get out of tight spots.
Pitchers who inherit a lot of runners, as you might expect, tend to have higher Inherited Runners Scored percentages (IS%) -- more tight spots means more chances for things to go wrong. So let's re-sort that table according to the lowest percentage of inherited runners allowed to score:
I KNOW, RIGHT?! HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!
(Ok, ok, one year's worth of inherited runner data is nice. But can he repeat it? In fact, he's been getting better at it every year that he pitches. The jump in improvement from 2013 to 2014 corresponded with increasing his strikeouts-per-nine rate from 7.2 to 9.2.)
Alright, back to the main point, which, you'll recall, was that Justin Wilson performs well under pressure. Looking at a list of his 2015 games ranked by the highest amount of pressure reveals something exciting: the five most high-pressure games for Wilson in 2015 ended with him contributing a positive Win Probability Added (WPA) score.
In English: the five times he pitched in the most critical situations, his team was in an even better position to win after he left the game.
Here are a few examples, using Average Leverage Index (aLI, or "pressure") and WPA as measuring tools:
August 11: Yankees at Indians (aLI 3.12, WPA .140)
The Yankees tied the game 2-2 in the eighth inning, and it was still tied in the bottom of the ninth when Wilson came into the game (because, you know, Old School Manager Rules and never using your closer in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road).
He gave up a single right out of the gate, which put the walkoff run on base. Mike Aviles bunted the winning run into scoring position (again, LOL Old School Baseball), but Wilson got Giovanny Urshula to ground out to shortstop, then retired Jose Ramirez on a lineout to first base.
May 19: Yankees at Nationals (aLI 3.01, WPA .133)
The Nationals got to starter Nathan Eovaldi in the bottom of the fifth, and a 6-2 Yankees lead quickly evaporated as he gave up a walk, a double, and three singles to make it 6-5 Yankees. With the tying run at second and the go-ahead run at first with only one out, Wilson came into the game to face none other than Bryce Harper.
After two quick called strikes on a cutter and a 96 MPH fastball, Wilson wasted a couple of pitches for balls before coming back with a cutter that got Harper to ground into an inning-ending double play.
August 7: Yankees vs Blue Jays (aLI 3.28, WPA .073)
April 23: Yankees vs Tigers (aLI 3.15, WPA .056)
These two games are practically the same game in terms of the situation Wilson faced and the duration of his performance. And these are precisely the situations you hope not to see in 2016, because frankly, Wilson was under-utilized in both.
Against the Blue Jays, Wilson came into the game in the seventh inning of a 1-1 tie after Nathan Eovaldi had put runners on first and second with only one out. With the go-ahead run in scoring position, Wilson faced Ben Revere. After coming down hard with three straight 95-96 MPH fastballs to put Revere in a 1-2 count, Wilson went to a cutter that fooled Revere and caught him check-swinging a little too late -- strike three. Dellin Betances then came in to finish out the inning.
Against the Tigers, it was a similar situation. Tied 1-1 in the seventh, Masahiro Tanaka gave up a one-out double to J.D. Martinez, then walked Yoenis Cespedes. Wilson was called into the game with the go-ahead run at second to face Alex Avila (OMG with all the Old School Baseball horsesh*t!), who was quickly swapped out for the right-handed hitting James McCann. Two 95 mph fastballs and a well-placed cutter later, McCann grounded to third for a fielder's choice. The left-handed hitting threat having passed, Wilson was replaced by Betances.
For a pitcher with this much talent, you'd hope he'll be used by the Tigers in 2016 for more than these kinds of LOOGY-type situations, but I suppose if you're Joe Girardi and you have Betances and Miller waiting in the wings, you can afford to be stingy with a pitcher like Wilson.
So, pressure? Bring it on. Inherited runners? No problem. Justin Wilson actually knows how to get the job done and play a true "fireman" role.