Wisler’s Recover(y): Giants Sign Former Prospect

Once upon a time, though not too long ago in the grand scheme of things, Matt Wisler was a hot prospect. When he debuted for Atlanta in 2015, he was a top 50 prospect in baseball, the prize of Atlanta’s return for trading Craig Kimbrel to San Diego. He came out slinging, too — he threw eight innings and allowed only one run on the way to his first major league win.

The rest of that season didn’t go according to plan. Though Wisler stuck in Atlanta’s rotation, he struggled to the tune of a 4.71 ERA, 4.93 FIP, and a strikeout rate only 6.7 percentage points higher than his walk rate, one of the worst marks in baseball. 2016 and 2017 didn’t go much better, and by the trade deadline in 2018, Wisler was merely a throw-in, one of three pieces the Braves sent to Cincinnati for Adam Duvall.

You already know the broad story beats of the pitching prospect who falls from grace, but what the heck, I might as well fill them in here. The Reds turned around and traded Wisler back to the Padres, his first professional team, in exchange for Diomar Lopez, a lottery ticket arm. To add insult to injury, the Padres traded Wisler on to Seattle in exchange for the dreaded “cash considerations.” When the Mariners tried to sneak him off their 40-man roster that offseason, the Twins claimed him. Finally, after a year in Minnesota, the team non-tendered him rather than pay him an arbitration salary.

Boy, that sounds rough. Traded for a lottery ticket? Traded for cash? Waived to save a little bit of that aforementioned money? It’s an ignominious end for a once-glamorous prospect. One issue — Wisler isn’t done, at least not yet. Today, he signed a bargain $1.15 million deal with the San Francisco Giants, who will give him one more shot to recapture the form that had him ranked next to luminaries like Rafael Devers, Aaron Nola, and yes, fine, Kevin Plawecki (hey, they aren’t all hits) only five years ago.

How should you evaluate a pitcher? Probably not wins and losses, and that’s a good thing for Wisler, because he didn’t win a single game in 2020. Probably not ERA, either — this one is worse for Wisler, because he excelled here last year. In 25.1 innings, he allowed three runs, good for a 1.07 ERA. That’s pretty good!

On the other hand — 31 runners reached base against Wisler, and only three scored. Two of those were via solo home runs, which means that out of the 29 times that he pitched with a man on base, he got out of the jam 28 times. That’s nothing short of miraculous — in the majors as a whole this year, roughly a quarter of baserunners who reached base scored.

Dig a little deeper, and all kind of interesting tidbits start to pop up. Pitching in relief and as an opener — he made four starts and went roughly two innings in each of them — unlocked Wisler’s inner Nolan Ryan. He struck out 32.7% of opposing hitters, a career high, relying on a Wiffleball slider he threw 83.4% of the time.

Wait — 83.4% of the time? A slider?! Yeah, it’s safe to say that Wisler is an unconventional pitcher. He threw 90% sliders or more in five different outings, including a September 1 tilt against the White Sox where he threw 14 straight sliders in a 1-2-3 ninth to notch a save in a one-run ballgame. Wisler at his best? It’s this piece of mind-bending nonsense that turned Luis Robert inside out:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a GIF surely improves on that, and this one is a beauty. When you’re ahead in the count, running a slider from over the plate to below it is lethal, and that’s the one thing he does best.

The counterpoint to that beautiful GIF? It’s the walks, stupid. He walked 13.1% of opposing batters, nearly five per nine innings, and hit another two for good measure. Despite that biting slider, he drew only an average number of chases on sliders outside the zone — when batters come to the plate thinking slider first, slider second, and slider third, they have an easier time holding off on it, particularly when ahead in the count. This is a complete nonsense stat, but Wisler was lethal if he got ahead 0-1 — a .192 wOBA — and pretty bad when behind 1-0, to the tune of a .356 wOBA. It got even worse when behind 2-0, naturally.

Those count-based splits are just window dressing — they’re pretty, but nothing approaching stable in a few seasons of play, let alone a pandemic-shortened season by a reliever. The point makes sense, though: rely on a pitch that does best on chases, and getting ahead in the count takes on disproportionate importance. To his credit, he was willing to attack the zone with his slider — he was in the top 10% of pitchers in baseball in slider zone rate, and was also top 10 in whiff rate when batters offered at those in-zone sliders.

In fact, you could make a strong argument that Wisler got unlucky to walk so many batters in 2020. He got ahead in the count frequently, missed bats in the zone, and generally did all the things that slider-heavy pitchers need to do. On the other hand, his slider-heavy game feels tenuous, as though hitters could have a eureka moment and turn him from effective to a non-entity overnight.

I’m trying not to make too much of this deal. The Giants are only paying him $1.15 million for one year, so it’s not like he was in hot demand across the league. I’m just a sucker for post-hype sleepers, and Wisler sliding his way across baseball certainly qualifies. It could all work out quite poorly. He had a 4.99 xFIP last year, his statline buoyed by the aforementioned strand rate and an abnormally low rate of home runs per fly ball.

But it could all work out well quite easily — well enough, at least, to justify the price tag. He was one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in the game last year, and was second in baseball in the percentage of batted balls that opposing hitters popped up. If he can keep away from dangerous angles while continuing to rack up strikeouts with his slider, 2021 could be the start of Wisler’s return to prominence — not with a near-1 ERA, most likely, but with a 3-handle number and a bigger contract for 2022. For both he and the Giants, it seems like a sound bet.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Getting slider happy in SF hasn’t be a successful habit.

3 years ago

One more potential investigation. Do certain pitches (at least the knuckleball) do better in certain stadia, latitude, temperature and humidity.

One more thought, could baseball analytics test the Poincaré recurrence theorem, which states that certain systems will, after a sufficiently long but finite time, return to a state arbitrarily close to (for continuous state systems), or exactly the same as (for discrete state systems), their initial state.

Keep rocking, best bud…

Dan Greermember
3 years ago

Counterpoint: Sergio Romo, perhaps the most slider-heavy reliever in recent memory.

3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Greer

And Sergio Romo most recently had success on… the Twins who encouraged Wisler to become an almost slider-only pitcher.