One of the unfortunate narratives of the 2013 Seattle Mariners season has been Tom Wilhelmsen‘s unfortunate struggles with consistency. Wilhelmsen was one of MLB’s most dominant closers in 2012, and there was very little reason to believe that would change going into 2013: Wilhelmsen was missing a ton of bats and had largely limited his walks. Some of that was probably aided by luck, and in the same sense much of his 2013 struggles can be traced to things we consider fairly volatile (left on base percentage, namely).
There isn’t a lot of reason to dig into the limited value attached to closers, or the volatility of small sample sizes. It’s not that they aren’t valid elements of this post, just that if you’ve made it this deep into the Mariners blogosphere, you’ve undoubtedly been beaten over the head with the importance of those two contextual concepts. You’re very smart. Congratulations. You’re probably also something above replacement level in the looks department. Congratulations again.
Tom Wilhelmsen used to be a starter. Prior to his promotion to the big leagues while in the Mariners farm system, Wilhelmsen only accrued five non-starts. Tom Wilhelmsen pitched 29 times for the Mariners minor league affiliates, and 24 of those were starts.
Also, if you’ve made it to this website – something like the Double-A affiliate to more respected blogs – you’re probably also aware that closers sometimes come from backgrounds that aren’t closing. Sometimes they are the remains of a failed starting pitcher. Sometimes they come from other places.
For example, Tom Wilhelmsen.
Did you know he used to be a bartender?
The Mariners have some potential high-leverage relief arms in their farm system. Stephen Pryor has looked dominant this year, albeit in a limited sample. Carter Capps throws really hard. James Paxton has historically walked too many hitters to be a starter. Brian Moran* does some stuff. Closers can be closers for a long time, and sometimes closers can be closers because they can’t be starters. Closers can sometimes be fabricated from a good fastball and any excuse for a secondary pitch. Sometimes closers can be found pouring shots for slutty co-eds.
Normally closers only need two pitches because normally closers aren’t going to face a hitter twice. It is at least ostensibly harder to hit a pitcher who has more quality pitches, but it is also statistically harder for a hitter to hit a pitcher the first time he sees him in a game.
Tom Wilhelmsen has two quality pitches. Small samples indicate that Tom Wilhelmsen’s change up could also be a quality pitch, especially against lefties. Tom Wilhelmsen has also been throwing his two-seamer more since the beginning of the 2012 season, and because of that, he’s getting more groundballs.
Refining tertiary and quaternary (yeah, fuck you, I did it) pitches isn’t the pursuit of many closers. Tom Wilhelmsen throws a fastball and a curveball. Curveballs have pretty nuetral platoon splits. Tom Wilhelmsen was well equipped to be a closer and to get lefties out before he started throwing a change up.
All of this, as you may have read in the headline, is about me looking at the viability of Tom Wilhelmsen as a starter. How could you be this far into a post on a Double-A blog without having read the headline?
Wilhelmsen has the following characteristics that are usually the domain of starting pitchers, and less often the domain of relievers:
- Throws three quality pitches, maybe four if you count his two-seamer.
- Pitches from the windup when there is nobody on base.
- Left the minors having basically been a starter for the past two seasons
- Has said in at least one radio interview that he’d like to be a starting pitcher
There’s no doubt that Tom Wilhelmsen’s biggest weakness as a pitcher is his propensity to give up too many walks. He’s walked nearly four batters per nine innings through his major league career so far, and that’s not good. It’s not necessarily damning, but it’s an area of opportunity.
Wilhelmsen’s list of strengths is considerably longer. I’ve already mentioned his variety of pitches and his strikeouts, but consider also that he throws really fucking hard. So far this season he’s averaging 96.3 MPH on his fastball. He threw a fastball 99 MPH this year. He supposedly threw a fastball as low as 90.0 MPH, but considering his change up velocity averages 88.9 MPH, it seems likely that Wilhemsen’s 90 MPH pitch was a changeup that Pitch F/X called a fastball. Tom Wilhelmsen may actually throw his fastball harder than Pitch F/X cares to admit.
The reason this is good is because generally speaking, relievers turned starters lose some velocity in the rotation, and gain velocity when they return to the bullpen. Tom Wilhelmsen has velocity to spare. He throws the sixth fastest fastball in 2013 of all pitchers with more than 40.0 innings pitched. And Pitch F/X may think that some of his change ups are fastballs. Of all the guys above him on this list, only Aroldis Chapman throws a faster change up.
Three quality pitches (maybe four, if you’re down), and he shares some characteristics with starting pitchers. But the walks. The walks are bad. We don’t like the walks. We can all agree on that.
When I set out researching for this post, if I was nerdy enough to have written a hypothesis, it would have been that “relievers turned starters don’t get better at not walking hitters.”
Determining a conclusion to that is a bit more complicated than forming the hypothesis. Starters walk less hitters than relievers, but that’s bound to be strewn with examples of selection bias. Previously mentioned was that pitchers usually become relievers by attrition, meaning that the median true talent level of starters is almost undoubtedly higher than that of relievers.
The best I could do was to find six relatively recent examples, four of which turned out pretty well, and two of which turned out pretty poorly. Those six examples are Chris Sale, C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando, Brandon Morrow, Joba Chamberlain, and Daniel Bard. Here are those six examples in the form of a picture of a spreadsheet.
That each pitcher lost fastball velocity and strikeouts isn’t particularly surprising. That four of those pitchers got better at not walking hitters is somewhat surprising, while the line of demarcation being those that improved their walk rate, and those who got considerably worse, is basically what any proponent of advanced analytics would expect.
If someone wanted to find things that were different between Tom Wilhelmsen and each success story, they could do it. If they wanted to find similarities between Wilhelmsen and both failures, they could do it. The point here, though, is certainly not to create a paradigm for reliever-to-pitcher transformations. The ability to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues is incredibly rare. The ability to be a high-leverage reliever in the major leagues is slightly less rare. Each position requires some skills that are perhaps uniquely necessary for that position. Usually players in each position, however, possess some skills that create some overlap with the other position.
Tom Wilhelmsen possesses some of those skills for both, and arguably he possesses all of the skills for both. It’s not really clear if he’d be successful as a starter, but at this point, it’s not really clear that he’ll remain successful as a closer.
For what it’s worth, perhaps the best comparison on this list is Alexi Ogando, but for reasons that share some parallels that extend far beyond fastball velocity and pitch type. Rather, Ogando’s story is similar to that of Wilhemsen because of his birth year.
You may not realize this, but Ogando is actually nearly two months older than Wilhelmsen.
We know Wilhelmsen’s story very well. He tested positive for weed a couple times, quit baseball, camped for a long time, then he started serving drinks in Tuscon, Arizona. One day he decided to quit smoking cigarettes and start smoking fools that stepped in the batters box against him. That decision has led him to prosperity by way of a recently successful baseball career.
Ogando’s story is equally immature, but arguably more nefarious. Ogando signed with the Oakland A’s in 2002, and in 2005 he was caught up in a human trafficking ring. Ogando – along with several other minor leaguers – married a woman who had previously been denied a visa. The Rangers added Ogando in hopes that he’d be granted entry into the United States after a one year ban.
They’d have to wait until 2010, and since then Ogando has bounced between life as a starter and a reliever despite relative success in both positions.
One of the virtues of having a player in their prime is that a team is able to maximize the player’s value without regard for their development. There’s a good chance that the player in question is fully developed, and in most cases that player has enough experience and enough of a track record to make the best decision obvious.
The Mariners need depth in their rotation soon. Between Danny Hultzen‘s shoulder issues, James Paxton‘s walk issues (though he’s been better lately), Brandon Maurer‘s homerun issues, and Taijuan Walker‘s age and relative proximity to his prime, the Mariners can’t afford to punt the opportunity to improve their rotation with the expectation that all, or really any of these pitchers will be successful in the big leagues.
The closer position is a relatively fungible position. Not many closers remain closers for very long, and not many teams with bad rotations have an overwhelming need for a closer anyways.
Tom Wilhelmsen used to be a starter, and at one point this season he was demoted from the closer role. If he’s not long for the position, if the position isn’t the team’s top need (especially with the relievers presently in the organization), and if he’s got potential to be successful as a starter, the Mariners should consider Tom Wilhelmsen for a rotation spot in 2014.
* I know Brian Moran throws zero miles per hour