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Justin Wilson's early dominance is due to his change in approach

Wilson has moved away from a fastball-heavy strategy to find success this season.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

While Francisco Rodriguez has struggled out of the gate and Mark Lowe has looked steady, the third member of the Detroit Tigers' new late-inning trio has been the sharpest so far. When Justin Wilson was acquired during the offseason, many had an optimistic outlook for the lefty destined for the seventh-inning, but few thought he would look this good.

Granted, the Tigers are just 18 games into the season and Wilson has only pitched 8 1/3 innings, but his April success is something that should continue throughout the year.

Early success

Surely his numbers will show some regression, but Wilson’s early stats are phenomenal. In nine games this season, he owns a 0.00 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 35.5 percent strikeout rate, and has walked just one batter. His 0.80 FIP ranks seventh among all MLB relievers who have pitched at least five innings, and he has already been worth 0.4 fWAR. Wilson enjoyed a pretty solid 2015 season -- a 3.10 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 2.69 FIP in 61 innings -- but his numbers to begin this year represent a great improvement across the board.

Batted Ball Type Ground ball rate Line drive rate Fly ball rate
2015 43.8% 27.5% 28.8%
2016 57.9% 26.3% 15.8%

Though Wilson has enjoyed both improved strikeout and walk rates this season, opponents have been making contact with his pitches at a very similar rate to last season (76.3 percent to 79.7 percent). This contact has led to a higher batting average against (.233) and a higher BABIP (.368), but opponents have yet to cross the plate against Wilson.

While his 35.5 percent strikeout rate is helpful in limiting the damage, the biggest reason for his success is a jump in ground balls and a reduction in fly balls. Batters are hitting over 57 percent of balls in play on the ground, while only lifting 16 percent of them in the air, helping Wilson avoid big hits.

Fastball usage

Wilson has relied heavily on his four-seam fastball throughout his career and it has been his most dependable pitch. In 2015, he threw his four-seamer over 70 percent of the time, which averaged 95.2 miles per hour, 11.6 inches of vertical movement*, and 2628 rpm. His vertical movement and spin rate are significantly above the major league averages, and opponents only hit .228 against the pitch last season.

The measurables on his 2016 fastball are very similar to those of last year, but Wilson has been finding much more success with the pitch this season. The biggest improvement is a jump in his ground ball rate (41.2 percent to 71.4 percent) and a drop in ISO (.069 to .000). With an increase in ground balls there has also been an increase in batting average (.228 to .250), but batters’ current .429 BABIP against his fastball is likely to decline as the season goes on.

*Vertical and horizontal movement is measured by PitchFX relative to a pitch with no spin. A pitch with a lot of vertical movement doesn't "rise," but stays straight for longer than other pitches because of a high spin rate.

Mixing it up

Pitch Usage Four-seam percent Sinker percent Cutter percent Other percent
2015 70.7 9.5 13.3 6.5
2016 36.3 30.7 28.2 4.8

With such strong numbers to start the season and a history of fastball success, one might assume that Wilson has again leaned on his four-seamer to start 2016. However, the early distribution of his pitches has been a huge surprise. In every season in his career, Wilson has thrown his fastball at least 50 percent of the time. To start off the 2016 season, he has greatly increased the usage of both his sinker and cutter. While the measurables on these pitches do not seem any different than they were in 2015, the pitch variety that Wilson has introduced has helped his numbers improve.

One noticeable trend is how Wilson has started off most at-bats. He threw his fastball on the first pitch of an at-bat nearly 80 percent of the time last season, but has chosen to start off over 60 percent of batters this year with his sinker.

Meanwhile, it is the cutter that has been most effective of his three pitches. Last season, 30 percent of Wilson's cutters results in balls, while only 11 percent generated whiffs. Batters hit over .300 against the pitch. This year, Wilson has seen much better results with his cutter, generating whiffs 25.7 percent of the time and limiting opponents to a .182 average.

Though Wilson has changed how frequently he throws each pitch, he has not made sweeping changes to where he throws them. Rather, it appears that by mixing up his pitch selection and becoming less predictable to opposing hitters, each pitch has become more effective. Wilson’s early success is fascinating, considering that these pitches look essentially the same as they did a season ago.

Going forward

Despite not making any measurable changes to his pitches, Wilson’s numbers across the board have been the same or better than last season. For the first time in his career, Wilson is using his other pitches as often as his four-seam fastball, and this difference in pitch selection has been paying great dividends so far. Nothing is guaranteed for a pitcher who has only faced 31 batters on the young season, but his change in approach is undeniable. If he continues to keep hitters off balance by mixing up his pitches, Wilson very well may enjoy career-high strikeout and ground ball numbers.