The Yankees’ offseason signing of Justin Wilson seemed like a solid move. The team added a steady, familiar middle reliever for a fair price ($2.875 million), and with Zack Britton sidelined until the summer, Wilson appeared to be a good replacement.
Of course, it hasn't worked out that way.
I wouldn’t fault a casual Yankees fan for forgetting that Wilson is a member of the team sometimes — six relievers have pitched more innings than him, and Wilson has produced a woeful 6.52 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in the 11 games he has pitched. Furthermore, the team has given increased responsibility to two other southpaw relievers, Lucas Luetge and Wandy Peralta (the latter having been acquired during Wilson’s struggles). He’s certainly dropped in the pecking order, and is not in Aaron Boone’s circle of trust right now.
However, the manager is far from giving up on Wilson, even after an appearance on Thursday that resulted in two more runs (one earned):
“Just probably missing that last gear,” Boone said. “What makes Justin Wilson such a good reliever and such a good pitcher is he’s got that low-mid 90s fastball that really plays up. He can pitch at the top of the zone. A few of his outings, it’s just been missing that final click, that final gear that makes that fastball characteristic special. I think he’s close.”
Boone’s assessment holds water. Wilson is averaging 93.2 mph on his fastball this year, which is almost two mph lower than last season and easily the lowest his velocity has ever been. He threw 21 fastballs against the Rays, and only mustered two swings-and-misses. To that point, Wilson’s whiff rate is just 20.9 percent this season — six percent lower than his career average. His chase rate has also cratered from 32.2 percent last season to a tiny 19 percent this season (MLB average is 28.4 percent). Opposing hitters just aren’t buying what Wilson is selling.
Another part of Wilson’s allure is his penchant for soft contact. This year though, batters are hitting him harder — his 28.3 percent hard-hit rate last year was in the top 10 percent of pitchers, but that rate has ballooned to 41.4 percent this season. In kind, his exit velocity has increased by three mph.
The good news is that Boone seems to have a few ideas on what’s ailing Wilson. His previous Yankees stint in 2015 also got off to a poor start — Wilson had a 5.79 ERA and eight walks in his first 14 innings that year before settling in as the team’s seventh-inning guy. Of course, that was six years ago, and the big issue now is that his fastball velocity is the lowest it’s ever been. It’s not like Wilson has a secondary pitch to turn to — his cutter isn’t bad, but it’s just another variant of a fastball. He’s only thrown four sliders this year, so it’s imperative that Wilson figures out his heater if the Yankees are going to get some return on investment.
Fortunately, the Yankees have other bullpen options to turn to in the meantime, and it’s not like Wilson’s performance is dragging the unit down. But, it has been an unexpected disappointment for a player who was supposed to help fortify one of the team’s strengths. Wilson still has some leash, but if he hasn’t improved by the time Britton is ready to return, he may be the odd southpaw out in a bullpen that features Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Wandy Peralta and Lucas Luetge.