When the Tigers traded Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Wilson was considered little more than a throw-in. The organization might tell you otherwise, but just about everyone considered the deal a one-for-one swap. Porcello for Cespedes. A pair of players on one-year contracts switching teams because they fill a greater need than in the organization they departed.
In defense of that mentality, Wilson's stats don't exactly jump off the page. He allowed a 1.91 ERA in 28 1/3 innings for the Red Sox last year, but gave up a 4.88 ERA in 2013. In over 400 minor league innings, he has a 3.82 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. His fastball averages a healthy 93-94 miles per hour, but he isn't one to light up the radar gun a la Bruce Rondon. His biggest claim to fame at this point might be that he is one of two players in MLB history to be born in Saudi Arabia. In other words, he's not exactly a top prospect.
That might not be the whole story, though.
Talked to Alex Wilson yesterday and he said the return of his cutter was a big reason for his 2014 big-league success. 1.91 ERA with Boston.— anthony fenech (@anthonyfenech) December 15, 2014
At first, this tweet seemed like an innocuous spring training quote on par with the "best shape of his life" stories. Wilson's 1.91 ERA came in a small sample of innings with an unsustainable batting average on balls in play, and his FIP actually rose from 2013 to 2014. Myth busted, right?
Not exactly. Wilson missed most of the second half of the 2013 season with a torn ligament in his right thumb. After an unsuccessful attempt to rehab the injury, Wilson underwent offseason surgery to repair the ligament and remove scar tissue from the area.
The result was a big change in his pitching repertoire. After relying almost entirely on his fastball and slider in 2013, Wilson was able to throw his cutter 32 percent of the time in 28 1/3 innings in 2014. Opposing batters hit .132 with a .237 slugging average against the cutter. An unsustainable .213 overall BABIP was mostly due to a scant .118 BABIP against the cutter. Opponents hit the cutter for a line drive just 17 percent of the time, barely above the 14 percent pop-up rate it generated. It didn't garner a lot of whiffs (cutters aren't really supposed to), but it induced a lot of bad contact.
There were other signs of life, too. Wilson's walk rate dropped from 11 percent in 2013 to 4.6 percent in 2014, an improvement likely related to having a healthy thumb. Right-handed batters hit .151/.193/.283 against him, a 600-point drop in OPS from the year prior. His strikeout-to-walk ratio nearly doubled. Opponents swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone and made more contact on those pitches, a great indicator of weak contact.
This doesn't mean the Tigers have found the next Mariano Rivera, though. For one, Wilson's .213 BABIP is unsustainable, even if it's all driven by the cutter. The league average BABIP for pitchers in 2014 was .295, and only five relievers worked a full season (60 innings) with a BABIP under .220. While a 3.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio is nice, Wilson's 3.91 FIP from 2014 is not. A 3.91 FIP doesn't exactly give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Joe Nathan, of all people, had a 3.94 FIP last year. Left-handed batters had a .787 OPS against him in 2014 and didn't seem to be phased by the changeup he threw to them 10 percent of the time.
Wilson has just over one year of service time under his belt. If he pitches exclusively at the major league level, he will reach arbitration status after the 2016 season. However, he will likely spend some time in the minor leagues this year, potentially delaying his first season of arbitration until 2018. Wilson has one minor league option remaining after being added to Boston's 40-man roster prior to the 2013 season.
Stats and projections
Unfortunately, I don't think we will be seeing a repeat of Wilson's sub-2.00 ERA anytime soon. The cutter proved to be quite nasty at the major league level in 2014, but Wilson had some major command issues at Triple-A Pawtucket and allowed a 4.35 ERA. He wasn't much better at Pawtucket in 2012, the year the Red Sox moved him from the rotation to the bullpen. His major league stats should be taken with a grain of salt when you consider the sample size and his larger body of work in the minors.
Luckily, the Tigers can insulate themselves from any potential command issues Wilson displays. He is a safe bet to begin the year in the minor leagues, but will be a short drive away from Detroit if he proves to be too much for Triple A hitters this time through the International League. He will be one of the first call-ups when the Tigers need another bullpen arm, and should wear out a path between Toledo and the majors in 2015.