Justin Wilson used to throw more than a modicum of curveballs, but that was when he was a starter. The Detroit Tigers closer largely shelved the pitch a few years ago, as it had been serving primarily as a get-me-over option. He didn’t feel it was beneficial out of the bullpen. As Wilson explained to me in June, “it was kind of loopy — the action just wasn’t there — so it definitely wasn’t a put-away pitch.”
The 29-year-old southpaw came into 2017 wanting to resurrect it — sort of. Mostly, he wanted a lower-octane offering to augment his bread-and-butter. Since becoming a reliever, Wilson has relied almost exclusively on a fastball and a cutter.
“I wanted something to slow guys down,” explained Wilson, whose days in Motown — if trade rumors are to be believed — are numbered. “When a hitter saw a scouting report on me, everything was hard. My fastball. My cutter is hard. There was nothing with a speed change. I worked on that over the winter, and kept it going into the spring.”
Over the course of the current campaign, Wilson’s breaking ball has been inconsistent and somewhat difficult to define. Pitch data suggests it’s a slider, the lefty considers it more of a curve, and depending on the day, either could be more accurate than the other.
When the pitch was its drawing-board stages, there was no intention of bringing back his curveball of yore. But while that didn’t happen, vestiges of old Uncle Charlie crept into the equation.
“It was more of me trying to find a slider,” explained Wilson. “But I wasn’t feeling consistent enough with what I was trying to throw, so I kind of blended what I was working on — the slider — with my old curveball. Right now it’s probably more of a curveball, whereas earlier in the season it was more slider-ish. It’s the same pitch, but it’s not coming out exactly the same way.”
But again, it’s different than his old curveball. Unlike its predecessor, the current iteration is “more off my fastball plane, with a spin that more resembles my fastball; in the past, I feel the hitter could see it come up out of my hand.”
Missing more bats has been one of the objectives. Wilson feels that having just a fastball and cutter has resulted in a bothersome amount of foul balls. If he were able to better disrupt timing, a meaningful amount of the pitches that were being sprayed into the stands would end up in the catcher’s mitt instead.
“I wouldn’t classify my cutter as a strikeout pitch,” opined Wilson. “I will get strikeouts with it here and there, but it’s more of a strike pitch or a ground ball pitch — something to get off the barrel with. The speed change I was looking for by adding a slider would be enough to get more swings and misses. I’ve been throwing it 86ish, and my fastball is 96, and that’s ten MPH. If the hitter is preparing for 96, that should be plenty slow enough to be effective.”
Wilson has clearly been effective in what may or may not be his final go-round with the Tigers. His new pitch hasn’t necessarily played a huge role that — he’s thrown it 11.2% of the time — but it certainly hasn’t hurt. His overall numbers are strong. Wilson’s ERA is 2.75, and his 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings are a career high. So are his 12 saves in 13 opportunities, which only increases his value as the month of July comes to a close.
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.