Optimized repertoire and mechanics could mean success for Brian Wilson

brian wilson

Stuart Wallace is an associate managing editor and writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen found productivity from some surprising sources last season. From the evolution and maturation of catcher-turned-bullpen-arm Kenley Jansen to the precocious shutdown innings from rookie lefty specialist Paco Rodriguez, the team’s necessity to take their chances with getting value and outs from less likely options worked in their favor. It also defrayed the disappointing  seasons from veteran and pricey free agent signings Brandon League and Matt Guerrier, while also helping the Dodgers outplay their Pythagorean win-loss expectation for the season by three games.

One other modest bullpen-based risk the Dodgers took that worked out was the signing of free agent reliever Brian Wilson to a minor league deal in late July of 2013, roughly 16 months after his second Tommy John reconstructive surgery on the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. After a 2012 that was limited to 2.0 IP due to the tear and a tumultuous 2011 abbreviated by a right elbow strain, Wilson returned to the mound last year in a setup role for the Dodgers, pitching 13.2 IP after a quick, two-stop tour through the minors that saw him throw 4.1 innings. Those 13-plus innings for LA were packed with production, seeing Wilson amassing 0.4 fWAR in the process (good for fourth among Dodger relievers) and the return of his mid-90’s heat.

With his return to health and upper echelon velocity, so went Wilson’s performance, not surprisingly. However, last season did show a slight change in Wilson’s approach towards attaining the level of bullpen formidability that endeared Giants fans to his play and his bombastic personality. Always one to use breaking and offspeed pitches sparingly, Wilson did appear to tweak the usage of his hard stuff:

Brian Wilson Pitch Selection 11-12 brian wilson pitch selection 13

Comparing his 2011-2 seasons to last year, we find that Wilson has eschewed some of his fourseam fastballs in favour for his cut fastball. Let’s take a look at percent difference in a handful of metrics (as well as velocity changes) in Wilson’s hard stuff before and after his latest Tommy John surgery:

brian wilson pitch diff

Here, we find that Wilson has gone to the cutter roughly 40 percent more as of late than in his 2011-2 seasons, with a concomitant drop in his four-seamer and sinker usage, post-Tommy John. Regarding pitch movements, it appears that while the cutter has been affected with a decrease in horizontal movement (PITCHf/x Hmov), it does appear to have gained some extra drop (PITCHf/x Vmov); Wilson’s other hard pitches don’t appear to have been as drastically affected by the return regarding movement. However, with these pitch frequency tweaks and pitch movement disparities, we also find some of the effects of the injury (and probably aging), in the form of an across the board drop in velocity, with Wilson’s fourseamer showing a half mile per hour velocity drop post-surgery.

With these changes in mind, let’s briefly look at some of the results of said changes:

brian wilson pitch change

Again looking at the percent difference between 2013 results from the injury riddled 2011-2, we find Wilson has been better able to control the cutter, with fewer balls called and more strikes called concomitantly in 2013, compared to his pre-injury performances. With this has also come a rise in swing rate, missed bats in the forms of whiffs, and fewer balls in play with the cutter, all things that give reason to Wilson relying so heavily upon the pitch; it’s a pretty darn good one. We also find another potential reason for the reliance on the cutter—Wilson’s issues with his old nemesis, throwing strikes, at least with his fourseam and sinker offerings.

Despite these results possibly offset by the caveat of a small sample size, especially with the 2013 data, the potential for Wilson to build upon last year and carry it over into another productive, hopefully injury-free season as a setup man remains great and for a particular reason.

Much like Wilson’s pitcher repertoire and selection has evolved in the process of returning from his elbow woes, the bearded one’s ability to develop and maintain a more consistent release point. Using his cutter for an example, let’s take a quick look at Wilson’s release point in more injurious days:

brian wilson release point A

…to healthier ones:

brian wilson release point B

While not pictured, Wilson’s fourseamer and sinker also show the same trend—increased variation in his release point in 2011-2 compared to last season. Again, we must temper expectations due to the small amount of data points provided in 2013, but we do see a somewhat tangible trend in the ultimate success of Wilson in 2014 with how well he can repeat his mechanics and dot the strike zone with the hard stuff. With a healthy elbow and a refined approach, there are positive signs that Brian Wilson can provide a clean slate for closer Jansen to stroll into come the ninth inning and continue being a surprising source of success in the process.

Stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball