A Tom Wilhelmsen Fly-By

Jeff Sullivan · July 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I don’t know what your viewing experience is like. I could never know exactly what your viewing experience is like, because even if you tried to explain it to me in words, your words wouldn’t quite capture all the little intricacies. That’s not a slight against you — it’s just about the difficulty of capturing emotion and psychology with ordinary language. But for me and my own viewing experience, I’m still not quite trusting Tom Wilhelmsen when he’s up on the mound. Wilhelmsen is back to closing again after losing his job for a little while — and he earned the demotion — and while he hasn’t recently blown up, I think the memory of his struggles is still too fresh. My experience is biased by my expectations of the experience, and that’s just a part of perception.

But I’ve found some relief in the numbers. Sometimes the numbers can be cold and stupid and discouraging. Like, say, the Mariners’ team UZR. But sometimes the numbers can make you realize something positive you might not have otherwise realized. First, here’s Tom Wilhelmsen over 12 appearances between mid-May and mid-June:

  • 12 innings
  • 9 unintentional walks
  • 7 strikeouts
  • 57% strikes
  • 80% contact

Those are the numbers of a struggling pitcher, of a pitcher who shouldn’t keep pitching high-leverage ninth innings until he figures out whatever’s wrong with his mechanics. Pitchers just don’t reliably succeed below 60% strikes. Especially pitchers like Wilhelmsen who basically have two pitches, one of which he likes to throw for a ball on purpose. Poor control basically neutralizes Wilhelmsen’s curve, and then he’s just not much of a pitcher.

Now here’s Wilhelmsen over 12 appearances since:

  • 12.1 innings
  • 4 unintentional walks
  • 11 strikeouts
  • 66% strikes
  • 66% contact

A year ago, when Wilhelmsen was good, he threw 66% strikes while allowing 77% contact. Lately he’s been throwing just as many strikes while generating even more swings and misses. It’s a very small sample — with relievers, they’re all small samples — but it was also a small sample when Wilhelmsen was having problems, and here we’re talking about a span of 200 pitches. Wilhelmsen’s been better about getting his strikes, so Wilhelmsen’s been better, just. Whatever he was struggling with, he seems to have figured out, if not completely, then mostly.

We could talk about Wilhelmsen’s reduced zone rate. We could talk about his fastball command or his curveball command or his developing changeup. But none of those are the actual problems — any issues Wilhelmsen has stem from delivery and maybe confidence, and the reality is that Wilhelmsen is never going to be known for his pinpoint location. Even last year, when he was rolling, he didn’t make a habit of just drilling his spots. The quality of his stuff gives him a margin of error, and when he’s around the zone enough, he can get by. It isn’t fair to expect Wilhelmsen to be a shutdown relief ace, because he’s probably just supposed to be good, and recently he’s been good. Good closers will allow runs and blow saves, but that much can’t be avoided. What’s important is seeing improvement.

Wilhelmsen seems to be coming out of things, and that’s good timing for him with Stephen Pryor on the road back to the bigs. At any point Wilhelmsen could again reverse course because relievers are annoying in that way, but this obstacle seems to have been overcome. And, anecdotally, I think Wilhelmsen gets a considerable benefit from pitching to Mike Zunino instead of any of the other framing clowns the Mariners have employed. Evidence suggests Zunino might be a good receiver; far more compelling evidence suggests the other guys have been bad receivers, and Wilhelmsen has lost a lot of would-be strikes especially around the bottom edge of the zone. A decent receiver should help him be only better still.

Maybe it’s odd to focus on a closer in a season in which the Mariners are still several games below .500. But it’s important for Wilhelmsen to be good the rest of the way, either so the Mariners can count on him in 2014, or so the Mariners can explore the trade market. It doesn’t help that Carter Capps is an ineffective mystery, and that Pryor is still in his rehab. We don’t know what those guys are going to be in a year, so it’d be super for Wilhelmsen to not be bad anymore. Really it’d be super for all of the Mariners to not be bad. I’m pleased to see that they’re in the process of trying it.


5 Responses to “A Tom Wilhelmsen Fly-By”

  1. heyoka on July 22nd, 2013 2:54 pm

    Another in a series of Small Sample Size Extrapolations. I think what’s funny is that Jeff’s recent small sample size speculations have yet to fail (Smoak might be good now, M’s are scoring runs now, Nick Franklin hits well). Now the implication is that Wilhelmsen has turned it around.

    When are you going to be wrong, Jeff?
    It’s not fair, others apply good process and are wrong half the time. You shoot from the hip like some kind of sabr-wizard.

    Then again, the number of posts I’m looking at might be…..a small sample size.

  2. Eastside Suds on July 22nd, 2013 3:10 pm

    Watching Wilhelsen this year, one can’t miss the fact that his fastball has very little movement. Even when he comes in at 96 on a 2-1 or 3-1 count, batters don’t have a lot to adjust to.

    If not for the Condor’s great catch the other night, he may very well have blown that save. Rule of fact, you get behind batters, and throw from behind all the time with ordinary stuff, you are going to get hurt. We have seen this since May with the Bartender. At least Medina has movement on his fastball as does Pryor (can’t wait for him to return).

  3. Jeff Sullivan on July 22nd, 2013 3:16 pm

    There’s the post I didn’t write in April, about how Michael Saunders might’ve only gotten even better than he was in 2012. But I’m always aware of the sample sizes, and I always take care to note them.

  4. PackBob on July 22nd, 2013 3:44 pm

    I also am still uncomfortable when Wilhelmsen comes in. He seems to be giving up a number of hard hits that if they are at someone, fine, if not, there could be trouble.

  5. MrZDevotee on July 22nd, 2013 4:01 pm

    I’m still catching up to the idea that we get to see our closer fairly often.

    Performance be damned!

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