Making You Feel Better About Tom Wilhelmsen
Tom Wilhelmsen, temporarily, has been removed from the closer’s role. I guess we won’t know if it’s temporary until or unless it’s over, but the plan is for this arrangement to be short-lived. Which, given the composition of the rest of the bullpen, is sensible. But, in order to get here, you need for a closer to be ineffective, and Wilhelmsen has lately looked too much like his early 2011 self, and not enough like his 2012 self. He hasn’t thrown strikes, and closers need to throw strikes, because closers are pitchers, and pitchers need strikes. Strikes are how you beat batters, and batters are the enemy.
When good players become bad, concern follows, as it should. But I do want to bring something to your attention. Matthew and I just talked a little about this on the podcast, but you haven’t heard the podcast yet, so here’s some doubled-up content. On May 22, Wilhelmsen walked a batter in an otherwise clean inning. He threw five of 12 pitches for strikes. Since that day, he’s thrown 9.2 innings and 174 pitches, 52% for strikes. That’s a terrible, terrible rate, and that’s basically why he’s been demoted. And it’s odd, since before that stretch Wilhelmsen threw two of every three pitches for strikes. He became unreliable, suddenly.
2012 Tom Wilhelmsen wasn’t unreliable, right? No, he was indeed quite good, overall. But over an early 11-game stretch, he threw 58% strikes out of 230 pitches. Over the next 15 games, he threw 74% strikes out of 214 pitches. Later, over nine games between August and September, he threw 55% strikes out of 157 pitches. The rest of the way, over ten games, he threw 69% strikes out of 167 pitches.
Between August 20 and September 5, Wilhelmsen allowed a .395 OBP. After that, he allowed a .240 OBP. Last season, Wilhelmsen had some stretches of wildness, and he shrugged them right off. He came back to pitch well, never turning back into a pumpkin. That’s encouraging, because Wilhelmsen seems wild right now. His stuff isn’t the problem; the movement’s all there, and so is the velocity. There’s something either mental or mechanical, and Wilhelmsen has bounced back in the past.
Just because he’s rebounded before doesn’t guarantee he can do it again, of course, and you’d always rather a guy be good than not good. I don’t know specifically what the problem is, aside from the end result. I don’t know what’s causing the wildness, so I don’t know if that’s different from the occasional problems in 2012. But it is important to recognize that this happens, and that it’s hard to rationally deal with reliever statistics. It’s not that Wilhelmsen has been wild for ten games, so much. He’s faced 46 batters. That’s a small sample, the rough equivalent of two starts. Against 54 batters in consecutive starts in May, Felix allowed 11 runs. Since then he’s been awesome again. Relievers face so few batters that it’s easy to make too much of what might not be a terrible issue. For Wilhelmsen, this might be a very minor slump, made to look worse because of his high-leverage role. String together a few mediocre innings as a closer and people notice, more than they notice for a starter or setup guy.
You might’ve missed it, but through April 17, Charlie Furbush had 55% strikes, with seven walks and 11 strikeouts. Since then, he’s at 64%, seven, and 23. Furbush doesn’t have great command, and neither does Wilhelmsen, but their control is good enough, and sometimes they just occupy the lower extreme of their error bars. That’s the nature of true talent — pitch to pitch, things fluctuate, and there’s no such thing as a stable performance.
I don’t know if Tom Wilhelmsen is going to be fine. But his stuff is there, he’s not that easy to hit, and he’s come back from this before. He should benefit, mentally, from a break. Maybe he does need to make some kind of mechanical tweak or two. But it’s easy to become too worried about a struggling closer. This one’s probably still a good one.