Yankees Take a Left Turn with Justin Wilson

In their latest move to revamp a bullpen that was atypically subpar in 2020, the Yankees have signed free agent Justin Wilson to a one-year contract that’s reportedly worth around $4 million — one that apparently has player and club options to lower its average annual value for Competitive Balance Tax purposes. Regardless of the deal’s complexity, this will be the 33-year-old lefty’s second go-round with the Yankees, for whom he pitched in 2015; he spent the past two seasons with the Mets.

Wilson’s final 2020 numbers with the other New York team (3.66 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 0.5 WAR in 19.2 innings) were solid but unremarkable. Of the 10 runs he allowed, six were clustered into two outings of three runs apiece: a loss against the Red Sox on July 29, and a hold against the Marlins on August 26. Beyond those two clunkers, he allowed runs in only three of his other 21 outings. For the fourth straight season, he walked more than 10% of batters he faced, though his 10.5% rate was still his lowest since 2016.

Below the surface, Wilson’s performance was more interesting. Relying primarily upon a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.9 mph and a cutter that averaged 90.8 mph, he did an excellent job of limiting hard contact in 2020. Via Statcast, his 84.5 mph average exit velocity placed in the 96th percentile, his 28.3% hard-hit rate was in the 92nd percentile, and his .274 xwOBA in the 75th percentile. Those numbers are based on a small sample of just 53 batted ball events, but they’re only a bit better than what he did in a 2019 sample of 101 batted ball events: 85.3 mph exit velo, 27.7% hard-hit rate, .285 xwOBA. In fact, over the past two seasons, Wilson’s four-seamer — which at 2,280 rpm hardly has a noteworthy spin rate — has generated the lowest exit velocity of any four-seamer in the majors:

Lowest Exit Velocity Via Four-Seam Fastball, 2019-20
Rk Pitcher Team BBE EV
1 Justin Wilson Mets 68 83.8
2 Darwinzon Hernandez Red Sox 56 84.7
3 Junior Guerra Brewers/D’backs 74 84.9
4 Brent Suter Brewers 99 85.0
5 Kyle Gibson Twins/Rangers 128 85.3
6 Tyler Rogers Giants 83 85.3
7 Aroldis Chapman Yankees 74 85.4
8 Noah Syndergaard Mets 144 85.7
9 Taylor Cole Angels 59 85.9
10 Julio Urías Dodgers 208 86.1
Minimum 50 batted ball events

Likewise, Wilson’s overall 85.0 mph average exit velocity over the past two seasons was the majors’ fifth-lowest at a 50-inning cutoff. The innings total is low because he missed over seven weeks due to left elbow soreness, but even with that absence, he ranks second in the majors in appearances (472) and innings (424.2) by left-handed relievers since the start of the 2013 season, trailing only Tony Watson — who just agreed to a minor league deal with the Phillies — in both categories. From 2013 to ’18, Wilson averaged 67 appearances and 61 innings per year, accompanied by a 3.34 ERA and 3.32 FIP.

Wilson’s durability and reliability are stronger selling points than his platoon splits, which aren’t dominant but are reasonably well-suited to the three-batter rule. Among lefty relievers with at least 100 left-handed batters faced over the past three seasons, his .272 wOBA (on a .185/.307/.298 line) places him in the 63rd percentile. Similarly, his .311 wOBA (.251/.341/.362) against righties in that same span places him in the 64th percentile. Among available left-handed relievers, Oliver Pérez (.240 vs. lefties, .267 vs. righties) stands out as more stifling to batters regardless of handedness, but his strikeout rate took a dramatic dip in 2020, and anyway, he’s not the one the Yankees signed.

Familiarity probably had something to do with Wilson landing in the Bronx. In November 2014, general manager Brian Cashman acquired him from the Pirates in exchange for catcher Francisco Cervelli, one of nine trades between the two teams over the past decade. Wilson pitched well in his first go-round in pinstripes (3.10 ERA, 2.69 FIP in career highs of 74 games and 61 innings) as part of one of the majors’ best bullpens (see below), but with three years of club control remaining, he was dealt to the Tigers in December 2015 in exchange for prospects Chad Green and Luis Cessa, both of whom remain Yankees.

It’s possible that Wilson’s arrival could bump one of those two pitchers off the roster. He lines up as the third lefty in the bullpen, available for mid-game and lower-leverage situations while top setup man Zack Britton and Chapman generally hold down the eighth and ninth. Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, and free-agent addition Darren O’Day are the top righty options, which leaves room for only two other relievers. Cessa, Nick Nelson, and Albert Abreu are the most likely of the candidates vying for the spot; of that group, only Nelson has minor league options remaining. It’s possible that Domingo Germán — who was suspended in late 2019 and for all of last season for violating the league’s domestic violence policy — or even Clarke Schmidt could compete for relief roles. That assumes Deivi García maintains his rotation spot and everybody else is healthy, though that’s no guarantee given how little Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon have pitched in recent years due to injuries.

With Wilson aboard, the Yankees’ bullpen projects to be the best in baseball according to our Depth Charts. That’s familiar territory for that unit:

Yankees Bullpen Performance Since 2015
2015 3.65 14 3.84 19 5.3 2
2016 3.67 16 3.83 18 6.6 2
2017 3.34 3 3.37 2 8.9 1
2018 3.38 4 3.33 3 8.8 1
2019 4.08 9 4.15 9 7.7 1
2020 4.51 16 4.69 20 0.8 19
Rk = ranking among all 30 teams.

Note that those ERA and FIP rankings understate the unit’s strong showings, as they don’t account for ballpark; I could have included ERA- and FIP-, but the WAR rankings were really the point.

Anyway, the Yankees’ bullpen was atypically mediocre last year, much of which had to do with the ripple effect caused by Chapman and Britton spending time on the injured list; the former missed the first three and a half weeks of the season due to COVID-19, the latter lost 12 days to a hamstring strain. Additionally, Loaisiga also missed time, and Tommy Kahnle was knocked out by Tommy John surgery.

With Green and Adam Ottavino struggling in higher-leverage work, the likes of Cessa, Nelson, and Jonathan Holder — who respectively ranked second, third, and fourth in relief innings for the team — were overexposed. That trio threw 64 of the bullpen’s 205.1 innings, with a 4.36 ERA, 4.85 FIP, and 0.0 WAR. As a unit, the Yankees’ bullpen yielded a .317 wOBA to left-handed hitters, the majors’ ninth-highest mark, with Nelson and Holder both particularly vulnerable. The regular presence of Wilson — instead of the sporadic presence of third lefties Luis Avilán and Tyler Lyons, who combined for 10 innings — should help.

Coincidentally enough, the Yankees already have a Justin Wilson in their minor league system, a righty-throwing 2018 draft pick out of Vanderbilt University who split the ’19 season between the team’s Gulf Coast League affiliate and their Low-A Staten Island one (RIP). That’s Justin Lee Wilson, while the 10-year veteran subject under discussion here is Justin James Wilson. Odds are that this won’t wind up as a Josh A. Smith/Josh D. Smith situation, as the Marlins had last year, or a Bobby J. Jones/Bobby M. Jones one, as the 2000 Mets experienced, or a Bob L. Miller/Bob G. Miller one, as the 1962 Mets endured.

Speaking of the Mets — how’s that for a slick segue? — Wilson had previously drawn interest from his old team as well as the Twins, though not until earlier this week in the case of the former. In late January, they signed Aaron Loup to be the bullpen’s top lefty, and, after their initial contact with Wilson, added lefty Mike Montgomery, who pitched just 5.1 innings in the majors in 2020 due to a lat strain, via a minor league deal. It’s unclear whether they’re still in search of another southpaw for the bullpen (c’mon, sign Peréz!), but based upon their current configuration and the projections of the players involved, they probably could have done better by retaining Wilson.

Indeed, while he’s not the second coming of Andrew Miller, Wilson doesn’t have to be. He should be a plus for the Yankees, helping to restore the primacy of one of the best relief corps in baseball.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

Thanks Jay! Not sure I understand the 2022 option piece… are those two separate options at different price points? Or a mutual option? Additionally how does that impact the AAV for 2021?

3 years ago
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They are probably separate options. There’s been a number of contracts signed this offseason where the team can keep a player at a higher price point in case the player does well, and if that doesn’t occur, the player can trigger the player option for a lower price point, but probably higher than they’d get on the FA market in case of injury. This is probably one of those scenarios.