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Tigers should use Alex Wilson in a late-inning role

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Wilson has been dominant in situations not involving inherited runners, and could help lock down the later innings in September.

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Tigers fans are accustomed to fiery bullpen implosions, so it’s a measure of how bad August has been that even us battle-hardened souls are taken aback by its awfulness. The bullpen as a whole has been worth -0.2 fWAR this month with an RE/24 of -1.57. Even worse, the afflicted pitchers have been the rocks of the bullpen all year: Francisco Rodriguez has an ERA of 6.00 on the month, Justin Wilson is at 8.64, and Shane Greene is somehow outpacing both of them with an ERA of 9.72.

As they say, not great, Bob.

Yet amidst the flaming wreckage of late innings, one arm has continued to step up as the summer has gone on. Alex Wilson now owns an ERA of 2.89 on the year, tied with Kyle Ryan for the team lead (minimum 20 innings). Wilson also has the second-highest fWAR in the bullpen at 0.8. Perhaps most impressive of all has been Wilson’s durability: he leads the relievers in innings pitched despite missing most of the month of April with an injury.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Wilson the most reliable pitcher in the bullpen at this point in time, and manager Brad Ausmus has slowly begun to trust him with higher leverage situations throughout the year, as his average leverage index when entering a game (inLI) shows.

Month inLI
May 0.96
June 1.08
July 1.31
August 1.20

Note: A leverage index above 1.0 is considered a mid-to-high leverage situation.

Wilson’s entering leverage index has dropped slightly in August, but that is skewed by an emergency relief session of Jordan Zimmermann on August 4. Other than that, his inLI has been high all month: 1.53, 3.83, 1.11, 1.73, and 0.47. Clearly, Ausmus has recognized the value that Wilson brings as a setup man, although this hasn’t been the case all season. A majority of Wilson’s appearances have included the lower-leveraged 6th inning (20 appearances) and 7th inning.

There is one area that Wilson has inexplicably struggled with all year: inherited runners. He has inherited 34 runners this year when entering games, tied for 20th-most in the MLB. However, 14 of them have scored for a rate of 41.2 percent. The American League average is just 31 percent, so Wilson’s numbers are pretty bad.

However, thanks to The Book that all MLB managers follow, there is one spot that doesn’t have to deal with inherited runners. The closer position has an appropriately high leverage index for a pitcher that has performed as well as Wilson without the onus of stranding a Mike Pelfrey bases-loaded jam.

Meanwhile, having Wilson as the closer could free up Shane Greene and Justin Wilson to be dominant firemen once they return to form. Greene has yet to allow an inherited runner to score while Justin Wilson’s rate, while an elevated 40 percent, is in a pretty small sample and could easily rebound. The shift in overall strategy would be slight, which is good. Ausmus tends to follow The Book and likes to have an established closer and an established eighth inning guy. K-Rod isn’t going anywhere just yet, so moving Alex Wilson to the 8th inning for now makes the most sense to maximize his abilities.

Therefore, if the time comes to give some of the top arms in the bullpen a break from their regularly scheduled roles, Ausmus should turn to the best available option to get outs in the eighth or ninth. All year, Ausmus has shown an increasing reliance upon Alex Wilson to get outs in the middle innings of games. Now is the time to move him into one of the premier spots in the bullpen and let him work clean.