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Hard Throwing Justin Wilson Has Become a Shut Down Reliever for Yankees

Hitters are batting just .196 against Wilson.

Justin Wilson (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

Justin Wilson (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)


On Sunday, the Yankees removed Masahiro Tanaka after just six innings and Adam Warren promptly got in trouble in the seventh, loading the bases with nobody out. Manager Joe Girardi called upon Justin Wilson to put out the fire and the lefty proceeded to strike out Justin Smoak and Cliff Pennington and got Kevin Pillar on a flyout to keep the Yankees within 2-0. The Yankees still lost the game, but the Houdini act performed by Wilson reinforces just how good he has been since a rocky first couple of weeks in the Bronx.

Through the month of May, Wilson had a 5.17 ERA and just 13 strikeouts compared to eight walks in 15 2/3 innings. But something changed for the 27-year old southpaw. He hasn’t allowed an inherited runner to score since May 20 and he has allowed just three runs since May 26, spanning across 32 appearances and 28 1/3 innings. During that stretch, he has recorded 30 strikeouts, allowed 19 hits and just eight walks.

“Consistency, that’s for sure. Not to say that I wasn’t necessarily consistent earlier in the year, but just making better pitches, quality pitches,” Wilson told me about what the difference has been. “As a reliever if you’re having a bad day you have to try minimize it and answer back with your next outing.  With a couple of rough ones in a row it can kind of skew your numbers. But lately just being real aggressive and attacking hitters.”

It was control that did him in earlier this year, but he has been much better at attacking the strike zone over the last few months. He has relied mostly on his fastball, which touched 99 mph in April but plays mostly around 96. He throws some version of that fastball most of the time, and he pairs it with a cutter or slider, depending on what you want to call it. Only Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman has a higher average fastball velocity among lefties since 2014.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Wilson out of Cal State Fresno in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, and he made it to the big leagues by 2012. He quickly developed into a very good reliever despite being a starter throughout his time in the minors — only 14 relief appearances, most of them in 2011

“The switch was more what Pittsburgh needed at the time. There need was for me to be in the bullpen in the big leagues and you’re not going to fight that,” said Wilson. “But the transition takes a little getting used to as far as not really feeling fresh or recovered every time you’re on the mound, which I wouldn’t say as a starter you are always like that but at least you get a few more days to recover.”

He was exceptional for the Pirates in 2013, going 6-1 with a 2.08 ERA, while holding lefties to a .501 OPS. Last year, however, Wilson regressed a bit, struggling more with his control (30 walks in 60 innings) and posting a 4.20 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. The Yankees hoped they were buying low on Wilson, and in order to obtain him they sent backup catcher Francisco Cervelli to Pittsburgh.

The 29-year old Venezuelan has morphed into the latest former Yankees catcher to thrive for the Pirates. Cervelli is hitting .300/.367 /.423 this year, and his average is second to Buster Posey amongst catchers with at least 300 plate appearances. While he has certainly progressed his game with more and more playing time, the swap was a win-win for both teams.

Wilson’s dominance of late has made that so, and he has turned an already good Yankees bullpen into a lethal one. Wilson said adjusting to a new club and a new role took some time, but he believes he’s ready to stay in a high-leverage role going forward for the Yankees and prove that he’s capable of taking over the team’s late-inning situations when star Dellin Betances or closer Andrew Miller aren’t available.

“Anytime that phone rings it doesn’t really matter to me,” Wilson said. “I’m going to go out there and stick to my strengths.”

While the Twin Towers of Betances and Miller have earned plenty of praise, New York’s middle relievers of Adam Warren, Chasen Shreve and Wilson have been equally impressive. Wilson is not a traditional LOOGY man, and he is more of middle-inning reliever than a strict left-on-left specialist. In his career, he’s actually held right-handed hitters to a slightly lower batting average than left-handed hitters (.207 for righties; .225 for lefties).

“I don’t know the exact reason why I’m tough on right-handers,” Wilson admitted. “I pitch in a lot, which opens up the outer-half of the plate.  But I guess pitching in and being aggressive.”

Wilson has pitched 42 1/3 innings this year, with an ERA of 2.55 (fourth amongst Yankee relievers), and 20 holds. Hitters are batting just .204 against him and he is sporting a 1.4 WAR. He also has four years of team control left on his contract, which is a nice bonus. Wilson has helped make this Yankees bullpen one of the better ones in baseball, but this relief corps is as tight-knit as they are dominant.

“We got a great group of guys here. We pull for each other. We build off each other and you got to have that,” Wilson said. “It’s such a long season and you get so many appearances. You have to work with each other and build off each other.”

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