Last night, Justin Wilson put up a typical Justin Wilson stat line: seven shutout innings, one hit allowed, five walks, and three strikeouts. Wilson threw 98 pitches in the outing, but only 59 went for strikes. For a detailed report of the game, Pat at WHYGAVS was in attendance, and has a good write up.
I mention that this was a typical Justin Wilson outing because, despite not having the best control, he somehow took a no hitter in to the seventh inning, and didn’t allow a single run. The lack of runs allowed isn’t surprising, considering he allowed less than a baserunner per inning. What is surprising is that Wilson consistently manages to allow less than a hit per inning, currently with 31 hits in 42 innings after last night.
It was the same case in 2010 in Altoona. Wilson combined for a 3.09 ERA in 142.2 innings, with just 109 hits allowed. He allowed a lot of walks, with 71, but also recorded a good amount of strikeouts, getting 134. After the season, we rated him as the 12th best prospect in the system, behind fellow rotation-mates Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, and Jeff Locke. Wilson might have the best stuff of the four starters from the 2010 Altoona rotation, but his control issues were what held him back in the rankings.
I’ve seen Wilson a lot since he entered the system. I saw him when he was with Lynchburg in 2009, and saw him again in Altoona throughout the 2010 season. There are some starts where Wilson is absolutely untouchable. There are other starts that can be described as “untouchable”, but they mostly refer to Wilson’s ability to hit the plate. I’ve seen Wilson put up dominating starts, and I’ve seen him struggle to find the plate at all.
The reason for the lack of control is a great amount of movement with his pitches. It’s not that Wilson is wild. It’s that he has a hard time commanding his pitches and keeping them in the strike zone. He throws his fastball in the 88-93 MPH range, and has touched 95 MPH in the past. He has a big breaking curveball, and uses a sharp slider as a change-up. In his career, Wilson has put up a 4.3 BB/9 ratio, which isn’t a number that usually leads to success in the majors. However, he has a career 7.7 H/9 ratio, including a 6.6 H/9 ratio this year, which reduces the impact of the walks.
Wilson’s 1.19 WHIP this year is fantastic. If he were walking two fewer people, and allowing two more hits per game, his WHIP would look the same, but his prospect status would soar. After two years of a high walk rate and a low hit rate, when do we assume that Wilson is the exception to the rule?
As I said, the walks aren’t a result of Wilson being wild. They’re a result of Wilson’s stuff having too much movement. For the same reason, Wilson is hard to hit. It’s almost similar to what we’re seeing out of Charlie Morton this year. Morton currently has 41 hits allowed in 46 innings, and has struggled with his walks, with 24 on the season. Morton has a lot of movement on his sinker, which leads to a high walk total, but also makes it hard for opponents to get hits off of him.
It’s too early to say that Morton can continue being successful with this approach, and likewise, any comparisons to Morton come with that disclaimer. Morton currently has a .269 BABIP on the season. The average starter is around .300, which means Morton is in line for a regression. That regression isn’t necessarily a guarantee. Some starters perform better than a .300 BABIP, although that’s a trend that is established over time, and Morton has a long way to go before we can assume that from him.
Wilson is very similar to Morton. In fact, he’s kind of a left handed version. He’s got great stuff, perhaps electric stuff? He allows a lot of walks, although that’s a result of his pitch movement, which also leads to his success in keeping his hit total down. He also gets an above-average ground ball rate, which is also similar to Morton. Wilson currently has a 2.36 ERA in 42 innings at the AAA level. That follows a 3.09 ERA in 142.2 innings in AA last year. If this continues, he could be in line for a promotion to Pittsburgh at some point this season.
The questions that surround Wilson are the same that surround Morton: how long can he continue to have success with an extremely low batting average against, all while issuing a high amount of walks? Traditionally pitchers who give up walks tend to struggle, as the walks catch up to them. However, Morton and Wilson are giving up walks for the same reason they’re limiting hits: because they have a ton of movement on their pitches, making those pitches hard to square up on. I don’t think either is a top of the rotation guy, but if they can somehow buck the trend, I could see each settling down as a 3.50-4.00 ERA pitcher, unconventional approach and all.