On Friday, January 25, the Mets signed free agent left-handed reliever Justin Wilson to a two-year, $10 million deal. Coming off of a solid season in which he posted a 3.46 ERA and 3.64 FIP in 54.2 innings pitched out of the Cubs bullpen, the Mets hope Wilson will provide them with another quality middle relief option to help bridge the gap between their starters and newly remodeled back end of the bullpen. While the move may not have been quite a perfect fit, Wilson’s presence on the roster should give Mickey Callaway another proven weapon out of the pen that can be trusted to get outs in high-leverage spots.
Drafted by the Pirates in the fifth round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of Fresno State University, Wilson spent the first three years of his career pitching generally pretty well in relief for the Pirates before being traded to the Yankees prior to the 2015 season in exchange for catcher Francisco Cervelli. After joining Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances in the Yankees high-powered bullpen, Wilson went on to have arguably the best season of his career in 2015. He ended up posting a 3.10 ERA, with a sterling 2.69 FIP to go with it, and struck out 9.74 batters per nine innings while walking a then-career low 2.95 batters per nine in 61 innings pitched. Despite posting 1.5 fWAR in 2015, good for 18th best among relievers that season, Wilson was traded again prior to the 2016 season, this time to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for right-handed relievers Chad Greene and Luis Cessa. Wilson’s improved control followed him to Detroit, where he followed up his strong 2015 season with an almost equally strong 2016 season. Wilson threw 58.2 innings in 2016, and posted a 4.14 ERA that was almost a full run higher than his well above-average 3.18 FIP because of some bad BABIP and HR/FB% luck. He improved upon his strikeout and walk rates from the previous season in 2016 with the Tigers, striking out 9.97 hitters per nine innings, and walking a career low 2.61 hitters per nine innings.
Wilson returned to the Tigers for the start of the 2017 season, and after a hot start to the season, and a few untimely blown saves from incumbent closer Francisco Rodriguez, was named the team’s closer in early May. Wilson thrived in the closer’s role for the Tigers, posting a 2.68 ERA, 35% strikeout rate, and 10.5% walk rate in 40.1 innings pitched for Detroit in 2017. This success led to Wilson being one of the most sought after relievers on the trade market as the trade deadline approached. After a bidding war in which basically all of the playoff caliber teams in baseball were trying to secure his services, Wilson was traded along with Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs in exchange prospects Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Upon moving over to the Cubs, Wilson’s season began to take a turn for the worse. Wilson’s ERA ballooned to 5.09 after moving over to the Cubs, and he completely lost his command of the strike zone, posting a ridiculous 20.9% walk rate in 17.2 innings pitched after the trade. His post-trade struggles got so bad, that the Cubs eventually left Wilson off their roster for the 2017 NLCS in favor of Hector Rondon. In total, 2017 ended up being an up and down year for Wilson, posting 1.1 fWAR, and a 3.41 ERA, which was backed up by an equally impressive 3.38 FIP. While Wilson’s strikeout rate rose to a career high 32.3% in 2017, his 14.1% walk rate more than doubled from his total in 2016, in which he walked only 6.8% of the hitters he faced.
This spike in strikeout and walk rates coincided with some larger changes to Wilson’s pitch selection and usage patterns in 2017. He largely abandoned his sinker in favor of increasing his reliance on his superior four-seam fastball, and shelved his fringey curveball in favor of a harder slider that he could use as a true off speed pitch to help keep hitters from timing his elite four-seam fastball.
Wilson returned to the Cubs for the 2018 season, and generally performed pretty well, although his control problems from 2017 continued into the 2018 season. He ended up pitching to a 3.46 ERA and 3.64 FIP, and walked 14.0% of the hitters he faced, which was almost identical to his total from the previous season. Fortunately for Wilson, he also maintained his elevated strikeout rate from 2017, posting a 29.2% strikeout rate in 2018. Despite his semi-regular struggles to find the strike zone, Wilson proved to be a reliable weapon out of the bullpen for the Cubs in 2018, and helped contribute to a Cubs bullpen that ranked fifth in the National League in fWAR, and first in the National League in ERA.
At this stage in his career, the tall left-hander primarily relies upon his above-average four-seam fastball to attack hitters, throwing it more than 75% of the time, and using it to get more than it’s fair share of swings and misses. Wilson throws the pitch hard, averaging 95.26 MPH and maxing out at 97.66 in 2018, and with an above average rate of spin that might help explain why it gets so many swings and misses, if we assume that most of it is moving in the right direction. Wilson averaged 2361 RPMs on his heater in 2018, which coincidentally almost exactly matched the rate of spin that Jacob deGrom had on his four-seamer last season. As a result of this elevated rate of spin, Wilson’s four-seamer gets plenty of vertical movement, averaging an elite 10.7 inches of vertical movement in 2018, which was about two full inches above league average.
Wilson complements his trusty four-seam fastball with both a hard cutter and a softer slider that he used 15.13% and 9.34% of the time respectively in 2018. He uses the cutter as his primary secondary offering, that is meant to look as close to his fastball as possible before darting down and in towards left-handed hitters at the last moment. He uses his slider primarily to keep hitters from timing his fastball, as there is a roughly 10 MPH gap between his fastball velocity and that of his slider. All of this combines to make Wilson an elite strikeout threat that gets a good amount of swings and misses and a relatively low amount of contact, even if they do come with a frustratingly high number of walks.
While he has a reverse-platoon split for his career, Wilson’s presence on the Mets’ roster adds a reliable left-handed reliever with a lengthy major league track record to a bullpen that badly needs one. He projects to give the Mets another quality middle relief option to help bridge the gap from their vaunted starting rotation to their newly acquired relief aces, that can be trusted to get important outs in high-leverage situations.