By: Will Burchfield
Justin Wilson has heard the doubters. He suggests his comrades in the Tigers bullpen have, too.
Rather than tuning the negativity out, Wilson is using it as fuel.
“You guys talk about us being bad, and it makes us want to be better and prove you guys wrong. I think that’s a motivator for everybody,” Wilson said.
Tigers relievers finished 13th in the American League last year in ERA (4.22). Wilson is coming off a down season of his own, his ERA ballooning from 3.10 in 2015 to 4.14 in 2016, and knows he needs to make some adjustments in his second season as a Tiger.
“I felt like everything I threw last year was hard, the fastball and the cutter. Didn’t really have anything to slow anyone down,” Wilson said.
Per BrooksBaseball.net, Wilson threw either a fastball, cutter or sinker 94 percent of the time in 2016. All three pitches had an average velocity over 90 mph. So the southpaw spent the offseason and spring training developing a couple off-speed pitches.
“A slider and a changeup,” said Wilson, who used both in a dominant ninth inning versus the Red Sox on Saturday. “It feels good, just gotta keep throwing ‘em, really.”
The bulk of Wilson’s struggles last season came against left-handed hitters — an irregularity for a left-handed pitcher, but a common theme for Wilson. He’s always been better against righties thanks to that hard-driving cutter, but hasn’t had a complementary pitch against lefties.
“That was partly one of the goals to get a slider in the repertoire is for the left-handed hitters,” he said. “It’s something that breaks a little more off the barrel.”
Said manager Brad Ausmus, “There’s a little more tilt to it whereas the cutter’s a little flatter. He’s also been throwing a changeup as well, but the changeup’s more for righties. The slider’s the one pitch that could be a difference maker against lefties if it develops the way we hope.”
Wilson featured a slider and a changeup last year, but sparingly so. Per BrooksBaseball, he threw 29 sliders, 19 of them against lefties, and seven changeups, all of them against righties.
“Like I said, I just gotta keep throwing ‘em, build confidence in ‘em and go from there,” he said. “The hitters will tell me if it’s good or not.”
The season is far too young to draw any definitive conclusions, of course. But Wilson hasn’t allowed a hit through three appearances to date, and was especially impressive on Saturday in picking up the second save of his career.
“That was as well as I’ve seen him pitch. Whatever his frame of mind was, whether it was attack the hitter or attack the strike zone, it worked pretty well,” said Ausmus. “He’s not going to be that sharp every single time he’s out there, but he’s certainly got the capability to be close to it.”
The challenge for Ausmus will be managing Wilson’s usage early on. The Tigers called on him frequently at the start of last season, perhaps too frequently, and he faded down the stretch.
“In hindsight we’ll probably be a little bit more careful with him,” Ausmus said. “It’s a tightrope, because you gotta win games but you want to preserve your assets for the entire season.”
As Ausmus walks that delicate line, Wilson will proceed with a chip on his shoulder, a shoulder that can now be counted on for more than mid-90’s heat.