2013 Dodgers in Review #45: RP Brian Wilson

90topps_brianwilson0.66 ERA / 2.52 FIP 13.2 IP 8.56 K/9 2.63 BB/9 (B)

2013 in review: Lottery ticket signing ended up becoming team’s primary setup man.

2014 status: Re-signed for $10m.

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Everyone thank Amy (@SpaceDodgersfor pitching in with a great job on reviewing Wilson. Thanks Amy!

Hey, remember Mike on July 29th, 2013?

Now before we discuss the merits of [signing Brian Wilson], we probably should discuss the elephant in the room: you hate him. Of course you do. He was a Giant, and not only was he a Giant, he was a huge part of their 2010 World Series title, even getting the final out. He’s a big weirdo with a giant, annoying, beard. He got into that thing with Casey Blake. He was in those tremendously irritating “Black Ops” Taco Bell ads. If Taco Bell was a place I would ever go to eat, ever, those ads would be enough to put a stop to that. I’M BLACK OPS.

If there’s such a thing as “good and evil” in the Dodgers / Giants rivalry these days, Wilson is probably the defining face of it.

And then, not so very long ago

Brian Wilson will return to the Dodgers for $10m in 2014. He also has a player option for 2015, reportedly between $9m and $10m depending on appearances.

At first glance, I’m relatively pleased with this. I think.

Brian Wilson has transformed from weird, hated Giant into a Dodger goofball whose two-year contract was met with an aggregate, easeful indifference. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. After signing Wilson to a $1m major league deal that would start in the minors until the end of the season, this seemed to be a pretty good idea. If Wilson was horrible, what was $1 million to multimillionaires? If Wilson was at least productive, then the signing was a steal. The signing turned out to be an absolute steal, for an incredibly small sample size.

In 13.2 innings pitched, Brian Wilson faced 49 batters, averaged 8.6 strikeouts, 2.6 walks, and 5.4 hits over nine innings. He struck out 13 batters in the regular season, and 7 of those were looking; of his 8 postseason strikeouts, 4 batters struck out looking (yes, I went back and counted). During the post season, Wilson faced 24 batters, posted a K/9, BB/9, and H/9 of 12, 3, and 6 respectively.

So I’m going to declare it here and let’s keep it in mind for the rest of this review: everything should be taken with a grain of salt due to the small sample size we’re dealing with.  In fact, the only statistic that has had a chance to stabilize is his strikeout rate, and only if we combine his regular and postseason statistics. Also, ignore all credit given on behalf of that incredibly shiny 0.66 ERA, since ERA for relievers is absolute rubbish, and even more so with small sample sizes.

Since Wilson’s strikeout rate only stabilizes if we include his postseason stats, let’s calculate his combined K/9 real quick.  Nevertheless, also keep in mind that, while “stable,” the numbers should still be accepted hesitantly. The last four stats in the following table quantify the looking and swinging strikeouts.

wilson_stats

Now, that said… Mike has said a bit about Brian Wilson’s success and has shown that there’s reason to be optimistic.

 …His velocity isn’t quite up to pre-surgery levels, but it was clearly trending in the right direction and allowed him to touch 96 at times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his strikeouts increased along with it; in his first 10.1 innings, he struck out eight, while in his final 9.1 (including playoffs) he whiffed 13. Again, small samples and all that, but encouraging. He also walked only six, which is good not only because control is often the toughest thing to regain after surgery, but because he’d often had problems with that even at his best.

And our good friend, Grant Brisbee, wasn’t particularly pleased that the Giants missed out on Wilson during the NLCS,

Second, it’s annoying watching Brian Wilson in the postseason. Not because he looks like a piece of steel wool in a fight with a raccoon, but because he’s pitching like the guy we remember. … I’m talking about the 2010 version, who was pretty swell. One of the better relievers in Giants history, to be honest. The 2013 version doesn’t have as much heat, but he has the command, which is probably as important.

It turns out, that his command has improved, when compared to his 2011 regular and 2010 postseason, which is very encouraging. However, it’s not exactly the command he displayed in the 2009 and 2010 regular seasons.

The problem with percentages here is that we’re not seeing how many pitches he’s thrown. Namely, pointing out that 65% of 311 pitches land outside of the zone isn’t quite the same as 69% of 1,028 pitches. These are also his 2013 and 2011 season percentages via Brooks Baseball, respectively. So it is important to show the number of pitches thrown for each month to put those percentages into perspective.

But realistically, the number of pitches thrown outside of the zone doesn’t matter if the pitch results in a swing and miss; depending on your source, your perspective on his swing and miss ratio may vary. According to baseball-reference, Wilson posted a career high swinging strike ratio (without contact) at 18%.  Meanwhile FanGraphs has him around league average at 9.2%, which is not a career high.

To stay consistent with my source, I’m going to use Brooks Baseball’s swing and miss information.  FanGraphs defines “whiff” as percentage of swing and misses per swing. Brooks Baseball seems to interpret whiff rate as the percentage of swings that miss, explicitly distinguishing it from “Whiffs/Swing.” In this review, I use “whiff” in the same sense that Brooks Baseball does.

Brooks Baseball’s graph for Wilson’s whiff rate in and out of the zone for both the regular and postseasons is below, but does not describe the combined total swing and miss ratio.

From this graph, it is clear that Wilson is at a career high for getting batters to swing and miss on pitches inside the strike zone with 15.45% and averaged 7.96% whiffs outside of the strike zone. These final three images, in order, display Wilson’s pitch location frequency, swing rates, and whiff rates. The color indicates the frequency: bright red for high frequency and bright blue for low frequency. Darker shades show a relative median frequency.

In Figure 1 we see that Wilson liked to pitch outside, something that is already established so far. When Wilson actually did pitch inside the strike zone, we see that he tended to hit the lower quadrants. Figure 2 shows that batters swung when the pitch was in the strike zone. However, the swing frequency in the top half of the strike zone indicates that, on the rare occasion Wilson pitched there, batters swung. Furthermore, Figure 3 demonstrates that batters missed when they swung at pitches in the strike zone’s upper quadrants.

The pitch frequency along the sides in Figure 1 should be expected, since Mike already talked about Wilson’s more frequent use of his cutter. Nevertheless, the lack of whiffs in the lower half of the strike zone implies that most batted balls were hit in the lower half. Also, those pitches along the right side of Figure 1 indicate that Wilson should have walked more batters than he did, especially since batters almost never swung when his pitches landed there. Again, small sample size applies here, because his batted ball and walk ratio data is not stable.

But this raises a question: how does one pitch outside of the strike zone an average of 65% of the time, have a 52% strikeout looking rate (L/SO%), while getting most batters to swing inside the strike zone and most whiffs in areas he almost never pitched? Where do those pitches that strike batters out looking land? There is a chance that those pitches land in the bottom quadrants of the strike zone, but given his pitch location frequency and low walk rate, it’s more likely that most of those looking strikeouts were generously given.

The velocity and control Wilson has displayed so far is encouraging, but the fact that he struck out more batters looking than swinging should be a red flag to everybody.  Why?  Because that’s an indicator that the human element of the game blessed upon us by the home-plate umpire has played it’s part in Wilson’s success, and that’s not reliable.

Therefore, while Wilson’s post-surgery successes so far deserves high praise, the questionable data yielded on behalf of the provisionally small sample-size drops his grade from the popular A+ that many expected, to a B.

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Next! Javy Guerra existed!

Brian Wilson Returns: Welcome Back, You Big Weirdo

wilson_2013-09-02

Per Tim Brown of Yahoo, the news we’ve been expecting for a few days: Brian Wilson will return to the Dodgers for $10m in 2014. He also has a player option for 2015, reportedly between $9m and $10m depending on appearances. As we’d heard before, he’s fine with setting up for Kenley Jansen, and the Dodgers are likely the only place he would have returned to without a guarantee of closing.

At first glance, I’m relatively pleased with this. I think. Obviously, the Dodgers badly needed another bullpen arm after non-tendering Ronald Belisario, and for a while I thought for sure some team would go nuts and give him a three year guarantee for like $30 million. So to get him for a single guaranteed year is a nice win, even if it’s more likely than not he’s exercising that second year too.

$10m is probably a lot for a guy who has been healthy for about two months of the last two seasons, especially when you think that maybe Jim Johnson or Edward Mujica could have been had for that much or less. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that he strengthens the bullpen, and I think we keep forgetting just how ridiculous the new Dodgers are. Would it have been better for $6m or $7m or $8m? Sure. Is it really going to prevent them from signing someone else? No, not really.

So from a baseball sense, the roster is stronger with him than without — and maybe this prevents Ned Colletti from getting desperate later and throwing three years at Grant Balfour just because he doesn’t want to be without someone. The money isn’t great, nor is it terrible. I can live with that.

So Brian Wilson Is the Setup Man Now, Isn’t He

wilson_2013-09-07

The only thing better than seeing Yasiel Puig crush a homer off of Matt Cain in the 2-1 Dodger victory on Tuesday night was seeing Matt Kemp do the same thing, because if Kemp is back, then this Dodger offense has a completely different look to it. But without shortchanging either of them, or Hyun-jin Ryu, who contributed yet another good start in what’s been a shockingly good season for him, the main takeaway from the game for me is Brian Wilson, who returned to his former home to strike out two in a scoreless eighth inning, keeping a one-run lead for Kenley Jansen to finish off in the ninth.

Granted, Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez aren’t exactly the heart of the Giants order, but it was still an impressive performance — and with a 0.73 ERA in 16 games as a Dodger along with the struggles of Ronald Belisario and Paco Rodriguez, Wilson looks to have gained Don Mattingly‘s trust enough to be Jansen’s main setup man headed into the playoffs. The almost zero-risk signing that was so controversial back in July seems to have paid off and then some for Ned Colletti.

But how much of it is for real? You know I don’t put a lot of stock in ERA, especially for relievers, and doubly so over a span of only 12.1 innings. Let’s look a little deeper and see what Wilson is really providing.

Turns out, the news is good — mostly. Throughout Wilson’s first few weeks with the club, my concern was that his velocity was down and that he wasn’t really missing a ton of bats, striking out just six in his first 11 appearances, but my hope had been that after such a long layoff he needed some time to get back up to speed. That’s basically what has happened, with six whiffs in his last five appearances, and steadily increasing velocity:

wilson_pitch_velo

 

Wilson’s cutter velocity has been trending upwards over the last few weeks, going from an average in the high 80s to just under 92 last night. His fastball was even more impressive, touching 95, but I focus on the cutter here because it’s been a pitch he’s been using more and more for a few years, which aligns with what he told reporters after his first minor league rehab stint, throwing “four or five cutters” among his eight pitches.

You can see that change in pitch selection charted across his career, because he used to be a fastball-first kind of guy:

wilson_pitch_usageAlthough there were reports that he was working on a slider and a change-up, that hasn’t materialized yet, and he’s almost entirely a two-pitch pitcher at this point. It’d be nice if there were some more variation there, I suppose, but he’s making it work so far, especially in that he’s walked just three. That was always the main strike against him, that even when he was saving 40+ games for the Giants, that he’d often have trouble getting the ball over the plate. If he’s managed to rein that in somewhat — perhaps by not throwing as hard as he used to — then he can still be effective, just in a different way.

Even Giants fans were impressed last night, so that’s something:

Except … he looked good. Like, really good. He had velocity and command. Remember the rumors that he was working out at USF with Giants people in attendance? What in the hell happened? How were they not seeing that? What, the bullpen was filled with irreplaceable talents?

Still, it’s hard to be effective when you’re not even topping 90 mph, so the fact that his velocity has steadily improved over the last two months is a wonderful sign. No one should get too worked up over that 0.73 ERA, of course, because it’s just not a number that means a whole lot over a short amount of innings for a reliever, but thus far, Wilson looks to be one of the better acquisitions of the season. Going into the playoffs, he’s arguably the second-best reliever behind Jansen.

That’s not a thing I thought I would ever write, yet here we are. Never stop being weird, baseball. Never stop.

Brian Wilson, Los Angeles Dodger

brian_wilson_parrotI think we all figured this was coming at some point, and now it really is — according to Yahoo’s Tim Brown, Brian Wilson has agreed to a minor league contact with the Dodgers.

We went over all of this yesterday, and my feelings really haven’t changed. Wilson was at one point a very good reliever, and the risk here seems minimal. It’s not even a major league deal so far as we know (update: it is), and Bob Nightengale reports that the deal is only for the remainder of the season. Wilson will of course start in the minors since he hasn’t pitched competitively since April of 2012, as Brown adds that he’ll report to the team complex in Arizona, then head off to Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, then “report to the Dodgers in two weeks,” though I have to admit that feels aggressive considering how long he’s been on the shelf.

So what we’re really looking at here is a shot in the dark that probably won’t even be relevant until just before rosters expand in September. If the end result here is that Wilson looks good over the final month and is the reason that Carlos Marmol or Jose Dominguez or whomever doesn’t end up on the playoff roster, that’s fine by me. If he’s not productive, or if his presence in the clubhouse is somehow an issue, then you get rid of him.

Because really, this is about what I hope Ned Colletti doesn’t do rather than what he does. If this means that Zach Lee isn’t getting sent to Cleveland for Chris Perez, wonderful. If this means that Joc Pederson isn’t part of some sort of package deal to acquire Bobby Parnell, fantastic. I get the argument that the Dodgers have been just about unstoppable recently and the addition of someone known for rocking the boat may not be the ideal solution, but then, when have we ever expected “ideal” from Colletti?

The need for relief help is real, and without giving up talent they’ve managed to take a two-month flier on a reliever who was once very good, though admittedly not since 2010. Feels like a worthwhile risk to me, even if it makes you feel all uncomfortable on the inside — and when Colletti inevitably signs him to a three-year deal this winter if he does well down the stretch, well, that’s an entirely separate decision than this one. As much as I hate to say it, and as weird as it’s going to be the first time he takes the mound… this is a pretty defensible move without a lot of downside as far as I can see.

(You may thank “TheConman” for that terrifying image up there.)

Your Worst Nightmare: Brian Wilson, Dodger?

More and more, I’ve come to the conclusion that the trade deadline is going to be quiet. The team is doing phenomenally, there’s few holes to fill, and there’s even fewer players out there to add. Sure, maybe Ned Colletti will talk the Phillies out of Cliff Lee, or the quiet whispers I’ve heard about Howie Kendrick will actually turn into something, but more likely than not, the only move we’re going to see is that the team will add a relief pitcher.

So while it’s likely that whatever reliever comes to town does so via trade, there remains the ever-present spectre of Brian Wilson looming, fueled by the realization that the Dodgers attended his workout at UCLA last week and quotes like this:

Wilson wants to land with a contender and is described as having an affinity for Los Angeles. Being that the Angels now are in sell mode, having dealt Scott Downs to the Braves on Monday, that leaves the Dodgers.

Now before we discuss the merits of any possible signing, we probably should discuss the elephant in the room: you hate him. Of course you do. He was a Giant, and not only was he a Giant, he was a huge part of their 2010 World Series title, even getting the final out. He’s a big weirdo with a giant, annoying, beard. He got into that thing with Casey Blake. He was in those tremendously irritating “Black Ops” Taco Bell ads. If Taco Bell was a place I would ever go to eat, ever, those ads would be enough to put a stop to that. I’M BLACK OPS.

If there’s such a thing as “good and evil” in the Dodgers / Giants rivalry these days, Wilson is probably the defining face of it. You can’t hate Buster Posey or Matt Cain, who are both outstanding players and reportedly solid people. You can’t hate Tim Lincecum, especially now that he’s a shell of himself, because he’s just too goofy. Hunter Pence? Maybe, but he’s been there for barely a year. Barry Zito? It’s too much fun to laugh at his contract. Pablo Sandoval? Sergio Romo? I guess? No, if there’s a recent villain of this rivalry, it’s Wilson.

So you hate Wilson, and I can’t really expect that any self-respecting Dodger fan would think otherwise, especially after we’ve been burned by years of Ned Colletti’s ex-Giants from Jason Schmidt to Juan Uribe to Eugenio Velez to Russ Ortiz to probably dozens more.

But know this: you hate him because he’s not been on your team. If Wilson did all the same things but had been on the Dodgers, you’d treat him like a folk hero. If Yasiel Puig was wearing black & orange while tossing bats and sliding into the plate on home runs, you’d despise him. It’s the way the sports world works, and that’s okay. Let’s just not pretend it’s anything otherwise.

As for me, I don’t really care all that much where players come from, and I’m not going to pretend that Jeff Kent‘s tenure as arguably the best second baseman in Los Angeles Dodger history was any less enjoyable just because he was Barry Bonds‘ running mate by the bay for years before that.

So now that we’re past that (and yes, I know some of you never can) the question goes back to standard baseball fare: is he worth the effort? When I first became aware of Wilson during the 2008 season, I mostly wrote him off as the worst example of what the “saves” stat could do. Sure, he saved 38 games, but he did so with a 4.62 ERA and a 3.93 FIP. Wilson walked too many and allowed too many homers to overcome a pretty decent strikeout rate.

But as much as I hated to admit it, Wilson really did become an elite closer in 2009-10. In 147 innings, he struck out 176 with a 2.27 ERA, limiting walks and homers to the point where he was worth 4.7 WAR combined. 2011 wasn’t nearly as good, with walks down and strikeouts up, but he also missed a month in August & September with right elbow soreness, and you imagine that’s not completely unrelated to the fact that the elbow popped in his second appearance of 2012, putting him down for Tommy John surgery which he is only just now returning from.

So you’re left with this: on one hand, this is a guy who’s really only been good for two years, not since 2010, and hasn’t really pitched in nearly two years. On the other hand, he was very good for those two years, and it’s not hard to think that the elbow played some role in that 2011 downturn. If you’re into “being battle tested,” he was nails during that 2010 postseason, striking out 16 in 11.2 scoreless innings.

We know that Wilson has offers from teams, and we know that he had wanted to come to the Dodgers last winter. We also know that the current bullpen has a bit of softness at the back end, so there’s room for improvement. As always, it comes down to price for me. If Wilson really wants to be a Dodgers, then a minimum-salary deal with perhaps a mutual option for 2014 makes sense. I can get past his San Francisco history and overall weirdness. If it also means that Colletti won’t trade Zach Lee for, I don’t know, let’s say Chad Qualls, all the better.

And if not? If he returns to the Giants or joins the Diamondbacks or Pirates or whomever? Then you may return to your regularly scheduled Wilson hatred.