Justin Wilson on His Reverse Splits and Motown Role

Justin Wilson is all about getting outs, and he’s done a laudable job of getting them. Over four full seasons, and a fraction of a fifth — two-plus with the Pirates and one each with the Yankees and Tigers — the 29-year-old southpaw has a 3.28 ERA and a 3.21 FIP. Armed with a 95-mph heater and a cutter/slider, he’s allowed 7.6 hits per nine over 258 innings of work.

Detroit acquired the Fresno State product prior to last season — Luis Cessa and Chad Green went to Gotham in the swap — and it remains to be seen how long he remains in Motown. Despite the solid relief work on his resume, Wilson has been the subject of trade speculation since the completion of the 2016 campaign. While the rumors have died down, there remains a chance he will be toeing the rubber in a new city come Opening Day.

If he does change addresses — and even if doesn’t — Wilson could find himself in a new role. His 276 big-league appearances have all been out of the bullpen, but some think he’s better suited to starting. Reverse splits are a reason. Last year, the lefty logged a .667 OPS-against versus righties, while same-sided hitters put up a .772 OPS. Over his career, lefties have been .043 better against his deliveries than have right-handers.

Wilson talked about his game when the Tigers visited Fenway Park last summer.


Wilson on aggression and location: “All I care about is outs. I don’t try to ever get ground balls — even if I have a runner on first. I don’t feel I have enough conviction behind the pitch if I’m trying to throw a ground-ball pitch. I’m trying to be aggressive. In a sense, I’m trying to strike everybody out. If he hits it on the ground, great. If he swings and misses, great. My thought process is more about making a good pitch than getting a specific result.

“I don’t think ground ball, but I do think down. Pitchers tend to get hurt when they’re up in the zone. There is success to be had up there, but you have to be down first. I want to be down, and then I can use up later. It’s all about getting outs.”

On his reverse splits and mis-location: “My way of thinking is that I need to be better against lefties. I’ve had success against righties — my splits have always been like that — and I think it’s because I pitch inside more than most. I got in trouble last night because I wasn’t getting the ball in. One of the strikeouts was even a mis-location pitch.

“For me, everything to the inner half of the plate to righties is going to be a four-seamer. I throw two-seams away, although it’s probably not as much of a sinker as most guys have. I couldn’t tell you the percentage, but the majority of my arm-side fastballs are going to be two-seams.

“Lately, my problems against lefties have come from missing over the heart of the plate with two strikes. That, or I haven’t gotten outs prior to getting into a count where I have to throw a fastball. My breaking ball has been there when I’ve needed it; it’s just that the fastball, late in the count, hasn’t hit that spot. I go through that a couple of times a year, usually — my misses are too much plate. Every pitcher has his keys, or a certain pitch he feels gets him back on track, and for me it’s probably my extension-side fastball. That’s one of the things that will go sour.”

On his repertoire: “Sometimes my two-seam might not look like one. [PITCHf/x] might not pick it up that way, because it doesn’t move as much. And sometimes, they’ll have my cutter — if it’s going just sideways instead of down — as a fastball. I also throw a slider, but it’s very close to my cutter. It’s almost the same pitch, even though I do try to get it to break differently.

“My cutter was taught to me as a slider, by Tom Filer. It was the slider he threw. The first day I threw it, it was probably a little bit more like a slider than it is now. I kind of played with the grip, and it became what it is now. It’s not a four-seam that I’m tying to cut, or offset my wrist.

“When I was a starter in the minors, I had a changeup and I used my curveball more. I played with a slider-cutter, but I was mainly fastball-changeup-curveball. When I got to the pen and my velocity started getting a little harder, and I was beating guys with velocity, it was harder for me to slow down my changeup. It wasn’t really a weapon at that point; it was more of a bat-speed pitch. When you’re throwing real hard… yeah, you want to get a guy out in front, but if you don’t throw a good one up here, it runs into their barrel. So I developed a cutter-slider — whatever you want to call it. I still use my curveball, but very sparingly.

“I don’t feel a need to throw a changeup out of the pen. It would be my fifth pitch — at least if you’re going to call my cutter and slider two different pitches. But if I were ever to go back to starting, I’d have no problem throwing it. With my stuff, it would be a lot more of a weapon in that role. Every spring training I come in trying to throw it, but it’s not a priority.”

On moving to the bullpen and possibly going back to starting: “My first year of Triple-A, at the end of the season — this was before I was put on the 40-man — they put me in the pen. That’s when my velocity spiked a little bit. I didn’t get called up, or anything like that. Then I went back to spring training as a starter, went back to Triple-A as a starter, and when I got called up I pitched out of the pen. I was sent down for maybe 10 days, and pitched out of the pen during that time. When I went back up, I stayed in the bullpen.

“Throughout my rookie season, I was kind of in the pen as a long guy. I don’t know if management knew what they wanted to do with me — how what I had fit best. As the season went on, I had some success moving into more of a leading role. By that, I mean if we were leading after six, I’d probably be in there. Or even the seventh. You get good at something, and… I’ve kind of stuck with this role.

“I’ve mentioned starting to people. If I get an opportunity, great. If I don’t, I’m happy where I’m at. It’s more of… I love being in the bullpen. I love being in the tight situations, later in the game, facing the heart of the lineup. But as a kid, when you’re dreaming of being a big leaguer, you imagine yourself being a starter. That’s still there in my mind. The longer you spend in the bullpen, the harder it is to transition back to being a starter, but who knows what will happen?”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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5 years ago

Good stuff David, thanks. Weird to even contemplate Wilson as a starter though. To him he has four pitches, but you rarely see anything besides the two fastballs and both are basically risers without much horizontal movement, though a little more with the two-seamer. It’s also interesting to hear him talking about keeping the ball down, when, with his four-seamer especially, it seems a lot more effective, and less likely to get murdered, when it’s at the top of the zone and taking advantage of its backspin.