There is another starting pitcher candidate on the block. In a surprising move, Detroit Tigers reliever Alex Wilson is going to get the opportunity to start games this spring. The 31-year-old relief pitcher hasn’t regularly started games since 2011, when he was in the Boston Red Sox farm system. No one was expecting the move, but it’s actually somewhat intriguing.
According to a report from Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, Wilson approached the Tigers about getting an opportunity to convert to starting, and they have given their go ahead to start stretching out his arm for the task.
“I started all the way up (through the minor leagues). I just never got a chance at this level. I feel like if I got a chance, I could prove myself as a starter and win a job. I hope it works out.”
On the surface, this is an unlikely change in roles for Wilson. His odds of making the conversion seem rather poor. But it also makes sense on several levels to allow the veteran right-hander to give it a shot.
The Tigers have little to lose
Detroit isn’t winning anything this season. Wilson is already 31, and while the Tigers have two years until he’s a free agent, he is neither expensive — he will make $1.93 million this year — nor a very valuable trade piece.
Pitching is hard enough on the body, so a switch in workload presumably holds a little more injury risk. Wilson has proven one of the most durable relievers in the game with the Tigers, though, and has pitched in multiple roles. He is as physically equipped as any reliever in the game to make the switch to a starting role. While teams are always looking for relief help, Wilson isn’t the type of guy who will command much of a return at the trade deadline.
Wilson has an intriguing arsenal
There aren’t a lot of relievers that get by without a legitimately good breaking ball. Most who do have high-90s heat at their disposal. Wilson somehow flummoxes hitters with a mix of sinkers, four-seam fastballs, and cutters that amount to over 90 percent of his offerings. The line between slider and cutter is a little blurry — FanGraphs and Statcast even disagree on the classification — but he averages 89 miles per hour with it, and it isn’t a serious swing-and-miss offering like a true slider.
Despite this, Wilson has spun 259 innings of major league work with a 3.20 ERA and 3.69 FIP. It’s an axiom of the modern game that a pitcher can’t survive without strikeouts, but somehow, Wilson has managed it. He consistently posts solid ground ball rates, gets more weak contact in the air than one would expect for a guy without an off-speed pitch or a high spin four-seam fastball, and doesn’t walk many hitters. He’s durable, and despite a lack of showcase velocity, Wilson can stifle a lineup with fastball command alone. There’s just one ingredient missing from what would otherwise look like a quality starter’s profile.
Without more strikeouts, it’s also a Mike Pelfrey-like profile
With so many balls going over the fences these days, allowing as much contact as Wilson does seems doomed to fail the longer he stays in a game. Wilson thrives on deception and the ability to manipulate the break on his fastball. If an opposing lineup sees him multiple times in a game, it’s not hard to imagine major league hitters doing major damage.
For this to work, Wilson is going to have to dip back into his starter’s repertoire. He needs either a better breaking ball or a changeup, and isn’t going to have much time to sharpen one enough to be usable.
The slider seems the more likely of the two. Wilson’s slider graded very well in his time as a prospect with Boston before a torn thumb ligament forced him to shelve the pitch. In the interim, Wilson made it to the major leagues as a reliever, and that path has rendered the slider somewhat irrelevant. Despite focusing on the pitch in spring training over the last two seasons, he hasn’t really been able to find the handle on it.
Instead of getting more depth on the cutter and shaping it into a true slider, Wilson has thrown a much slower version, averaging 82 miles per hour. He has hardly used the pitch, throwing it less than 10 percent of the time. That has to change if he will survive a starter’s workload.
The other option is to play around with a changeup. Wilson used to throw a circle change, but perhaps switching to a fosh changeup (or a splitter), which has grown in popularity within the Tigers organization recently, would make for an easier conversion.
There is an advantage to becoming a starter again
It may make developing one of his secondary pitches a little easier. On a starter’s schedule, Wilson will have more off days to throw side sessions. He’ll also get a lot more innings on the mound to work either the breaking ball or a changeup into the mix. It’s tough to work a new pitch as a reliever. Starting will give Wilson a little more time to work on an out pitch.
A successful move to a starter’s role remains a low percentage outcome. If Wilson were willing to start the year in Triple-A and continue to work as a starter, he would have better odds of making the conversion. However, that seems unlikely. The Tigers will need him in relief, and Wilson likely isn’t too keen on pitching in the minors. It’s a fun experiment, but one that will likely see him resume his old bullpen role in April.