First Pitch: Justin Wilson’s Control Holds Him Back

Last night I answered a left-over question from Tuesday’s Prospects Chat, focusing on Rudy Owens repairing his prospect status. Keeping it in Indianapolis, who I saw last weekend, here is another left-over question that I felt needed more of a response than I could provide in a chat.

Justin Wilson has top of rotation potential if he can master his command. True?

I would say that is true. I’d also say that’s a giant “if”. And by “giant”, I mean I don’t see it happening.

Control issues don’t go away easily. Wilson isn’t in a situation like Stetson Allie, where he just needs to learn how to pitch and get more experience. He pitched in college at Fresno State. He’s pitched for three years as a pro, heading in to this season. If he hasn’t learned to harness his control by now, he probably never will.

Wilson has the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter if that control was mastered. Again, a giant “if”. He usually throws in the low-to-mid 90s, touching 96 with his fastball. That’s pretty special for a left hander. When I saw him last weekend he was sitting 92-94, and ranged as high as 96. He also has good movement on his curveball and slider, with his curve being the better of the two pitches.

That control is really the only thing holding him back. In some starts he will look absolutely dominant. That was the case last week when I saw him combine with Jose Diaz and Doug Slaten on a no hitter. But then in other starts he will have trouble finding the strike zone at all. Prior to his no-hitter, Wilson gave up five walks in five innings during his previous start.

Wilson made a lot of noise last year when he was hitting 99 MPH out of the bullpen. Some suggest that he should move to the bullpen because of that, and because of his control. That idea doesn’t make much sense though, as Wilson’s control is also an issue in the bullpen.

He can still be an effective starter with the control issues present. Throughout his career he has compensated for the poor control with low hit totals. In 2010 he gave up 109 hits in 142.2 innings, with a .215 BAA. In 2011 he gave up 121 hits in 124.1 innings, for a .254 BAA. So far this year he has allowed 18 hits in 30 innings, with a .173 BAA. His walks are high, but if he’s keeping the hits down, then it’s no different than having eight walks and 26 hits in 30 innings, with eight extra singles.

The concern is that Wilson might not carry his low hit total over to the majors. He’s got some good pitches, but it’s very hard to put up a low hit total in the majors. In 2010 he had a 6.9 hit/9 total. This year he has an incredible 5.4 hit/9 total, mostly due to the no hitter and a small sample size. Last year, out of 94 qualified starters in the majors, only five had hit/9 totals lower than 7.0. Only 23 starters gave up less than eight hits per nine innings. And these starters are guys like Roy Halladay, Matt Cain, and other number one or number two starters. The odds that Wilson also joins that list is slim.

That’s where the walks become an issue. Wilson probably won’t carry his low hit total over to the majors, which means the walks will hurt him more there than they would in Triple-A, where they’re basically just replacing the hits he isn’t giving up. It’s unlikely the walks go down in the majors, and it would be difficult for Wilson to see a decrease in the walks in Triple-A (his BB/9 ratio this year is the same as last year: 4.8). Without the walks, Wilson could be a top of the rotation guy. But I don’t see that happening, as I think the walks will likely continue, which holds Wilson back and makes him more of a fourth starter.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Cardinals 6-3 today. Pedro Alvarez hit his 7th homer and Erik Bedard struck out 11. Game story here.

**Prospect Watch: Strong starts from Rudy Owens and Colton Cain. Last night I talked about how Owens was repairing his prospect status.

**The weekend draft prospects preview looks at the consensus rankings of the mid-season prospect lists.

**The Pirates’ pitchers are actually dominating this year, as opposed to last year.

**Matt Bandi took a look at the strike zone from Wednesday night’s game, focused on the pitches that resulted in Rod Barajas getting ejected for slamming his helmet.

  • yeah if he is another Mitch Williams the team would always be looking to replace him.  He could be another Bobby Witt who kept getting chances but could never put it together to become a dependable pitcher.  Hopefully he does get more control.

  • “That idea doesn’t make much sense though, as Wilson’s control is also an issue in the bullpen.”

    Wholeheartedly agree. I don’t want a guy coming in from the bullpen and walking folks. Look how ‘exciting’ Hanrahan made it yesterday.

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