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Tigers' Alex Wilson is an anomaly among today's role-defined relievers

Wilson can pitch in any inning at any given time, and it gives him an edge that other relievers in baseball don't have.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

DETROIT — Roles. Managers talk about them all the time, and relievers want them. For Alex Wilson, though, his “role” doesn’t rest within the confines of any set inning, but the lack thereof. Not as a long man, but as an “I’ll be ready whenever you need me” kind of a reliever. After a first-half battle with inherited runners, he’s now found a way to flourish as a unique asset for the Tigers.

Relievers like Wilson aren’t frequently found within baseball. Most teams don’t need one or prefer bullpen pitchers have a set role — manager Brad Ausmus has been vocal with his support in this regard. The lack of defined roles, while appealing in some sabermetric circles, is far less so for the players in the ‘pen. Wilson does not have that luxury, but at this point he’s not so sure he wants it.

“I think a lot of guys need that, honestly,” Wilson said. “Would I prefer it? Maybe. But at the same time, I feel like I can do anything, so me having that belief in myself and having the trust of Brad (Ausmus), as well, it makes our bullpen better. I can lengthen games if I need to come in early, or if it’s late in the game and we need a ground ball or something like that, he has the confidence to go to me. It allows me to be a Jack-of-all-trades out there.”

But getting there has had its ups and downs. Wilson’s dependability in the first half was lacking, a sharp contrast with how he finished 2015 as one of the few lights-out relievers for Detroit. Through the 2016 MLB All-Star Game, his traditional numbers weren’t awful per se (he had a 3.58 ERA with two home runs and 12 walks in 37 23 innings of work), but he had a nagging tendency of allowing inherited runners (IR) to score.

In a clean inning, Wilson was dependable, but bring him in to clean up another pitcher’s mess, and he oft would allow at least one run to score. His first half of the season saw 48 percent of inherited runners score, and in those situations, it made him more of a liability. So, about a month before the 2016 MLB All-Star break, an adjustment was made that would eventually turn his season around.

Finding a new normal

“I know you’re kind of desperate for a role but you’re the one guy that can do it all, so I can’t really give you that role.”

Those were the words that Wilson heard from Ausmus at the start of the year. It wasn’t a novel situation for him; he’d done it the season prior. He’d hoped 2016 would be different, but with Francisco Rodriguez being signed as the closer, Mark Lowe assigned as the set-up man, and Justin Wilson as the seventh-inning reliever, that wasn’t possible.

Knowing that going into the season made a difference for Wilson. From how he went about his workouts to how he mentally prepped for a game. And in that last regard, there aren’t really off days for him, much less an inning where he can truly relax and zone out until a specific point in the game.

With some starters — like Justin Verlander or, at one point, Jordan Zimmermann, which has now morphed into Michael Fulmer — the hope is that the bullpen isn’t needed until at least the seventh inning gets underway. But Wilson begins running through scenarios in his head as early as the fifth inning.

Most relievers are quick to tell you that they want (or need) a set inning. You don’t often find a reliever who wants to be devoid of a defined role. He and Indians reliever Andrew Miller are similar in that sense. Some of this has to do with how they warm up or go about their workouts between games. For some, too much variance will mess with their training and leave their bodies out of sync.

Starters have their own routines and rarely deviate from the plan. It’s the same for relievers, just at a different point in the game. Wilson’s dilemma was finding a routine that worked for him when he couldn’t depend on that game marker. And that went beyond when he should get loose in the bullpen — so, once he found one, he stuck with it.

“I do the exact same thing every single day,” Wilson said. “Same routine every day, same stretches, everything. I work out pretty much the same days every week. I’ve found a routine that works for me and I just stick with it, no matter if I throw three innings one day or just come in for an out. I just do the same routine every single day.”

Making something out of nothing

Wilson finished the 2015 season strong, but he was hurting down the stretch. He missed several games in August for an acute case of biceps tendinitis that stuck with him for the rest of the year. It forced him to change his workouts and game preparation, and for his health, he could no longer maintain as rigorous a training regime.

“That got really bad there at the end of the year,” he acknowledged. “It was just a struggle to get through that last month.”

He recovered in the offseason, but without the predictability of a traditionally defined role, Wilson’s new routine couldn’t fluctuate, and it couldn’t be dependent on the situation in the game. None of what he came up with involved day games. Frankly, working out the morning after a night matchup just wasn’t something he wanted to deal with.

Depending on how a series shakes out (whether it’s the traditional two night games and a day, or something else) Wilson works on his core twice a week and then a full workout at least once. Typically, that means he’s working out for the first two games in a series. Day games are off days, and if the team has two of them in the same series, he’ll often skip a series “because it’s early, and we don’t do early very well.”

When Wilson comes into a game isn’t his call, but he is in control of how, and when, he preps to come in should he be called. Mentally, that starts as soon as the ballgame gets underway. Barring early trouble, he’s stretching somewhere in the fifth inning regardless of the game situation. From then on out, whatever happens, happens.

In some ways, Wilson has turned a non-role into its own role. It’s an oddity in the game of baseball today, but one that he’s grown accustomed to.

“I honestly don’t know what you would call it,” he said. “But it’s something that is definitely unique. Even if you go around the league you don’t see a whole lot of guys that fill that much of a gap. And I take pride in being able to do that.”

Rest and recovery

His unique situation carries with it a recovery equally so, in part, credited to Koji Uehara when the two were teammates at Boston in 2013 and 2014.

Recovery for every player is different — catchers, like Alex Avila and James McCann, often soak in ice baths. Teams also have a masseuse on staff in the training room to aid in players’ recovery from minor injuries and the day-to-day muscle cramps/tightness that develops in-game. For Wilson, that involves dry needling and cupping.

Cupping has been around for a while. However, the general public has only recently become acquainted with the technique, after Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps and other athletes were seen with big red spots on their bodies in Rio. Wilson, on the other hand, has been doing it for four years.

A popular method among Japanese players, Wilson first saw the Red Sox masseuse using cupping on Uehara in 2013. Out of curiosity, Wilson asked Uehara if it really worked, and upon being told it did, tried it.

“Honestly, it looks terrible but — literally, you just lay there and try to relax for five, seven minutes and then they take them off,” he said. “Only time it gets painful is when they slide them around. That’s when you’ll see the big giant bruises that look like you got hit by a truck or something. But when it’s just individual circles, they’re just sitting there and increasing blood flow to that area.”

It’s since become a core part of Wilson’s recovery. He needs to take in extra fluids for the rest of the day and there is some lingering soreness as the muscles recover. However, he said it’s made a big difference in how he’s able to bounce back overnight — particularly after a rough or long outing.

The pitching ninja

As to that first half, Wilson needed to fix his problem with inherited runners scoring. There’s the “it’s baseball” aspect, but to have that issue for a whole half-season isn’t just a fluke. Nailing down a fix became a search, one that he needed pitching coach Rich Dubee for, to find the solution.

Wilson’s adjustment was two-fold. First, a slight arm angle adjustment, which he and Dubee adjusted during the Yankees series in New York a month prior to the All-Star break. Regaining his comfort level with the arm angle took a few weeks, though, and not until just before the Midsummer Classic did he feel like himself again.

“I think I was getting a little too high and we dropped it to where it was more of a three-quarter (arm) slot,” he said. “It really gave my ball a lot more life to it, and it was, really, just getting back to where I was last year.”

The second adjustment he and Dubee made was a slight tweak to his cutter, one so slight it’s unnoticeable to the naked eye. Wilson moved his fingers precisely over the seams of the baseball, and it changed the feel of his release point entirely. The cutter regained its bite, while avoiding a mechanics overhaul at the same time.

Dubee is, aside from the game, a ghost. Rarely is he seen in the clubhouse, and when he does pop up from time to time, he’s making a hurried beeline for a pitcher’s meeting. But while he seems to make himself scarce, Dubee is constantly looking for, and getting ahead, of issues.

At times, Dubee is handing out the solution before players have come to him seeking an answer. The bigger mechanical adjustments aren’t so readily repaired, but much like the smooth transition that Wilson experienced — going from Jeff Jones to Dubee when Jones retired — the pitching coach’s solutions are often seamless.

“Oh yeah, he’s like the pitching ninja,” Wilson said with a smile. “He’s doing something, you just don’t always see it. He’s behind the scenes, like if some guy has a rough outing, he’ll go look at the video, see if there’s something there or just talk to you. It makes our job easier.”

That proactive work led to the two figuring out the minor tweaks Wilson needed to make. In the second half of the season, he has allowed 31 percent of IR to score and until Sunday’s two that scored, he was at 21 percent. Until Sunday’s IR, only one out of nine IR scored in the last 12 games.

The very nature of Wilson’s job relies on him being able to enter any given situation and get out of it with little or no damage — preferably the latter. Ausmus has increasingly used Wilson in higher-leverage situations of games as the season wears on, and since the MLB All-Star break he’s handled the responsibility well.

Old school

If there’s one area where Dubee and Wilson hold similar viewpoints, it’s with advanced metrics — or, more specifically, the lack thereof. Some of the pitching staff ascribe to a sabermetric perspective in preparing for a start or outing — Justin Verlander is one — but Wilson does not.

Dubee is a self-described old school pitching coach. But with the Tigers having taken steps towards incorporating advanced stats into how they prep for games, he’s become acquainted enough with both sides. Wilson, though, has no intention of traveling down that road.

“I am very old school in my beliefs in pitching and metrics,” Wilson said. “Couldn’t even tell you what half the crap means, honestly. Completely clueless. That’s more Verlander’s department and not mine. I just go out there and try to do my job. I don’t even watch a whole lot of video.”

The videos and other aspects are what he leaves for the catchers to call, and Dubee to advise. Wilson is comfortable relying on a traditional scouting report, information from what fellow teammates tell him, or past experiences. For him, it works.

The ability for relievers to reach triple-digit heat has become a well-sought commodity. In today’s game when most relievers are so closely attached to their roles, Wilson is a two-fold anomaly. Yet, he’s succeeded because of his ability to locate and deceive opposing batters. He may not be tied to any set inning, but then, that’s what’s made him so unique — and valuable.