The 2019 Mets bullpen was quite bad. A 4.99 ERA somehow only ranked 5th worst in the league and their 27 blown saves was tied for 7th, but their flaws were so much starker next to an otherwise talented team.
But Justin Wilson, incredibly, was not at all bad! In fact, he was very good. Breaking from the atrocious trend set by fellow offseason acquisitions Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz, Wilson finished his season with a 2.54 ERA, his best since 2013 and the best of any Mets reliever this year with at least two innings pitched.
Picked up as a free agent in January on a two-year, $10 million contract, Wilson was coming off a stretch of solid if unspectacular years between Detroit and Chicago. Unlike fellow lefty Luis Avilan, brought on around the same time, Wilson was not considered a lefty specialist, having established over several years no significant platoon split, a trend that carried through to 2019 as he pitched to a .687 OPS against right-handers and a .629 against left-handers.
That flexibility, combined with his consistent performance made Wilson one of Mickey Callaways go-to pitchers out of the bullpen, a fact that didn’t always work to his advantage. A heavy workload early on may not have directly caused the elbow soreness that led to a mid-April stint on the injured list, and a desire to rush him back to work may not have directly caused the ill-advised May return that lasted just one disastrous game before he was back out for nearly two more months. But certainly the high volume of innings in a relatively short period of time didn’t help and by the middle of September, his performance was already starting to flag again, despite the lengthy break.
One of the keys to Wilson’s success all season was his resistance to the home run bug that infected the rest of the league. Indeed, his 0.92 home runs per nine innings in 2019 was on par with his numbers going back the past three years and the lowest of any Mets reliever besides Seth Lugo and Brad Brach (with the latter having pitched just 14 innings). A spike in his usage of an excellent cutter and a lack of dependence on a high-velocity slider may have helped avoid the disastrous impact the change in the baseballs had on some of his colleagues.
The reining in of home runs was essential, though, as it kept Wilson from getting burned by his main deficiency over the course of the season: walks. Hardly a new issue for him, Wilson walked over 11% of the batters who faced him, a rate that puts him in the company of Mets relievers such as Daniel Zamora and Hector Santiago. It was amazingly his lowest walk rate 2016 and just a hair over his career average, suggesting that this is probably just a part of his game and not an indication of lingering injury or other larger concerns.
Luckily for Wilson, he posted a strong strikeout rate to balance out the walks, with batters fanning in over 26% of the plate appearances against him. This mark was a slight decline over the prior two years, but not enough to raise red flags over the 32 year old’s location on the aging curve.
Given the worst-case-scenario outcomes for so many other new Mets relievers, it’s difficult to overstate just how essential Justin Wilson turned out to be for them. Between July and August, when the Mets were in the midst of their most serious push towards contention, he allowed just two earned runs across 25 appearances. Without Wilson, they may not have been able to make much of a move at all. And while he didn’t get the opportunity to revisit his 1.69 career postseason ERA, the Mets will happily give him another shot in 2020.