Padres Rookie Right-Hander Steven Wilson Has a Captivating Pitch Profile

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Steven Wilson is a 27-year-old rookie with a captivating pitch profile. His primary offering is a riding, mid-90s fastball delivered with good extension, and from a low vertical approach angle. His breaking ball is a bullet slider that’s he honed with the help of technology. Wilson also has a Vulcan change in his repertoire, although it mostly stays in his back pocket. By and large, the 6-foot-3 right-hander is thriving as a two-pitch pitcher.

An eighth-round senior-sign by San Diego in 2018, Wilson has come out of the Padres bullpen 15 times this season and thrown the same number of innings. With the exception of his most-recent outing — three earned runs allowed in two-thirds of an inning — he’s been very good. The Santa Clara University product has allowed 12 hits, issued five walks, and fanned 17 batters. He’s been credited with three wins and one save.

Wilson — No. 9 on our newly-released San Diego Padres Top Prospects list — discussed his pitch mix when the Friars visited Pittsburgh at the end of April.

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David Laurila: How do you get guys out? Can you answer that question without the cliche, “attacking the strike zone”?

Steven Wilson: “Well, that helps. But for me, it’s typically playing the fastball up in the zone, and then throwing a slider off of that. My slider goes down. It has more vertical break — more drop — than most sliders, and less horizontal than most sliders. A lot of people think it’s a curveball, but if you watch it in slo-mo, it actually has bullet spin like a slider. So yeah, fastballs up top and sliders down. Sometimes a changeup down.”

Laurila: Is the slider new, or something you’ve always thrown?

Wilson: “I kind of learned it right before I got Tommy John [in 2017]. After TJ, I’ve thrown the same one — same grip — since my last year in college. There’s nothing unique about [the grip]. Honestly, I just try to get as much bullet spin as I can. In the offseason, I use the Edgertronic cameras, and Rapsodo, and TrackMan — all that stuff — to make sure I’m staying behind it, down through it, and getting really good spin.”

Laurila: Have you done anything specific to “perfect” the pitch?

Wilson: “Once I found the grip, it was actually kind of natural. But there are certain things, certain cues. When I’m starting to be more horizontal, sometimes it’s because I dropped my arm down subconsciously. I can look at the data and see that, and know that I need to get back up top and get through the ball more. And sometimes I’ll be thinking curveball, but then I watch the slow-mo, and while I feel like I’m doing that, I’m pulling down on the side of the ball. So, there are some internal cues. Like I said, I’ll think curveball, but it’s really just keeping that wrist strong and getting through the ball.”

Laurila: And the actual movement profile is…?

Wilson: “I want to say minus three vertical. The horizontal is around negative eight.”

Laurila: When did you begin understanding that it was a good pitch for you?

Wilson: “It started working for me pretty well that last year of college — the first year I really threw it — because I was getting a decent amount of swing-and-miss. But at that point, I didn’t throw up in the zone. I didn’t know how my fastball played. If you look at my college stats, I was very average. Except for my last year, which was pretty good, I was a pretty average college starter. But then I learned more. The Rapsodos came out. The data came out. With that, I was able to make my pitches better.”

Laurila: Which pitchers to you watch and study?

Wilson: “Nobody.”

Laurila: Nobody?

Wilson: “Yeah, I kind of just try to make it my own. I don’t really look at anybody’s mechanics. I don’t even know if anybody has compared me to anybody else, like, ‘He looks like this guy when he throws.’ I feel like I’m pretty unique. That said, some of those tighter sliders have more velocity, and they might look more like a fastball. Hitters are swinging at them like a fastball, and then they’ve got that late movement.”

Laurila: How much ride do you get on your fastball?

Wilson: “I’m around 19 or 20 vertical. A lot of it is the vertical approach angle, though. I have a really long stride and release from pretty low. I’m like 5-5 when I release. When you add the ride to that, it looks like it never drops. When I get a lot of swing-and-miss underneath the fastball, I know it’s playing well that day.”

Laurila: When did you learn about your vertical approach angle?

Wilson: “Maybe 2019, but mostly last year. When I was in college, spin rate was the big thing. They wanted high spin rates, and then I got into pro ball and they wanted the vertical break. You can get that without a high spin rate. Spin helps, but there are other factors that play into it. Then I get into last year, and it was about the vertical approach angle. If you don’t have a lot of vertical movement, and you don’t have a lot of spin, but for some reason you’re still getting swing-and-miss up in the zone, it’s probably the vertical approach. You’re releasing low, and hitting the top of the zone.

“It’s that entry to the hitters. It’s like watching a baseball player trying to hit against a softball pitcher with a rise ball. They don’t do well, because it goes the opposite way of every other baseball pitch. That’s how the fastball… sometimes it looks like it goes up. I don’t think it physically does that. Maybe for Tyler Rogers, but he’s kind of the only guy.”

Laurila: What is your extension?

Wilson: “Around seven feet. I get pretty good extension with my long stride.”

Laurila: You mentioned having a changeup in your repertoire. Is it a pitch you’ve always had, but simply don’t use very much?

Wilson: “I had a changeup in college, but then after TJ, I struggled to find one. In 2019, I threw a cutter [as a third pitch] instead. Last year, I kind of found a grip that works for me. It’s more Vulcan-y. I throw it off my middle finger and try to get sidespin on it, looking to get some downward and horizontal action. I have pretty big hands. That allows me grip it the way I do.”





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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John DiFool2
1 month ago

Hope he doesn’t come down with a Deadwing.

Or gets a bad case of Glass Arm Shattering.