This past Sunday’s notes column included Trevor Williams on the subject of pitcher won-lost records. As was pointed out in the piece, the Pittsburgh Pirates righty probably deserved better than last season’s 14-10 mark. On eight occasions he got either a loss or a no-decision despite allowing three-or-fewer earned runs.
His wins weren’t gift-wrapped. Not by a long shot. Ten times he went at least six innings without allowing a run — that was the most in the majors — and he was nearly as stingy in the others. Only five of the enemy combatants who crossed the plate in Williams’ 14 W’s went onto his ledger. At season’s end, his 3.11 ERA stood seventh-best in the senior circuit (min. 170 innings).
Not bad for an 26-year-old hurler who, for all intents and purposes, was acquired in exchange for a pitching instructor.
As Pirates fans are well aware, his ascent began in July. Williams went into last season with a 4.36 ERA in 163 big-league innings, and through 19 starts he was holding that form to a T. His ERA was exactly what it was on Opening Day. Then he morphed into Greg Maddux. Over his final baker’s-dozen outings, Williams allowed just 11 runs — four of them in his lone clunker — in 71.1 frames.
“Pitch execution,” is the explanation he gave me for his second-half success. “That’s all it was. The ability to throw the fastball anywhere I wanted to. The four corners. Top of the zone. Bottom of the zone. Inside half. Outer half. It was really just the ability to execute a fastball.”
And then there were the baseball gods. The pragmatic pitcher recognizes that he has only so much control over what happens between the white lines.
“Sometimes the difference between a good game and a bad game is a line drive that gets caught,” Williams said on Friday. “It could be a six-inning-two-run outing, or it could be five-and-two-thirds innings and four runs. One pitch with a lack of execution can turn into three runs. Last year I did a better job of executing.”
It is common to hear pitchers say they aren’t going up against the opposing pitcher, but rather the hitters standing in the batter’s box. Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer on the bump for the other side? Out of my control. Peter Alonso or Juan Soto? That’s a different story.
Williams differs in that respect.
“For me, it’s having the ability, and the want, to out-execute the other starting pitcher,” said the San Diego native. “It’s less about wanting to go up against a team than it is wanting to go toe-to-toe with the opposing pitcher. If he’s executing 85 pitches, I need to execute 86. That will give my team a better chance to win.”
Even with that mano-a-mano mindset, Williams knows that he needs to win the lion’s share of the battles with nine-or-more batters each time he climbs the hill. There’s a good bit of Roberto Duran-Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns to the equation, as well.
“Throw the first punch,” expressed Williams. “I’m not waiting to see how the other team is going to hit against me, I’m going to attack the way I know how to attack. I’m going to force them to hit a certain way off of me.”
Some are skeptical that he’ll continue to get the upper hand. Williams punched out a pedestrian 6.64 batters per nine innings, and his BABiP-against was an arguably-unsustainable .261. His stuff obviously plays, but he’s no Nolan Ryan. The four-seam fastball that Williams throws roughly 70% of the time hovers around 92 mph.
He views his heater differently than do the naysayers.
“My fastball is elite when it’s executed properly,” opined Williams. “Maybe not the velocity. Maybe not the [2,198 rpm] spin rate. But my ability to put the ball where I want to … that’s elite, even if the numbers don’t show that. I trust in my ability to locate it, and get outs with it.”
While his confidence-level is beyond rebuke, he isn’t taking anything for granted. Not only does the humble hurler hold himself to a high standard, there are non-believers to prove wrong. He’s heard them loud and clear.
“Three starts into the second half, all I was hearing was, ‘There’s no way he can keep this up,’ said Williams. “People on the outside would say, ‘There’s no way, analytically, that it’s possible. But I did. For however many starts it’s been, I’ve kept it going. Will it continue? All I know is that I’ve been doing everything I can to prepare — to get my body and brain right — and the goal is to be even better.”
If being even better — or simply holding serve — ends up entailing a tweak to his attack plan, so be it. Mano-a-mano may be his M.O, but the former Arizona State Sun Devil is too smart to be stubborn.
“The league will adjust,” acknowledged Williams. “That’s how it works. In this game, it’s ‘adapt or die.’ If I have to scrap Plan A, then I’ll scrap Plan A and go to Plan B. But again, I’ve been able to keep it going,”
Two starts into the 2019 season, Williams has allowed three earned run in 12 innings. He’s surrendered 10 hits, walked one, fanned nine, and won his only decision. Plan A continues to work just fine.
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.