Over the weekend, the Chicago Cubs leaned heavily on the back-end of their bullpen to take down the St. Louis Cardinals.
And frankly, it worked:
Wade Davis: 3.1 IP, 1H, 0ER, 1BB, 3Ks
Pedro Strop: 2.0 IP, 3H, 0ER, 1BB, 1K
Carl Edwards Jr.: 1.2IP, 0H, 0ER, 0BB, 1K
Davis, Strop, and Edwards combined to record 21 outs without giving up, well, much of anything – so the outcome was, in fact, a success.
But even with an off-day yesterday, I’m sure Joe Maddon and the Cubs would’ve preferred to have leaned on another high-leverage, late-inning arm to take some of the physical stress away from that trio. But with Mike Montgomery swinging between the rotation and the bullpen, Brian Duensing still saved for specializing (to an extent), and each of Hector Rondon and Koji Uehera dealing with injuries, the only realistic remaining option was Justin Wilson.
And in another life, that’s a no brainer.
Before Justin Wilson came to the Cubs with Alex Avila at the trade deadline, he was a downright stud in Detroit. Through his first 40.1 IP with the Tigers this season, Wilson had a 2.68 ERA with a solid 3.23 FIP and recorded 13 saves in 15 chances (not everyone can be Mr. Perfect, like Wade Davis). Plain and simple: he was very good.
Of course, things have been much different since coming to the Cubs, with his numbers exploding – in a bad way – across the board. And so, Wilson got exactly one out over the course of the weekend, and that was it for his contributions.
But perhaps that ultra-short outing had some greater implications.
Justin Wilson, you’ll recall, came into a highly-emotional and stressful point in the game on Friday, wherein the Cubs had just lost their starting battery (John Lackey and Willson Contreras) to ejections, and had just given up the go-ahead run. On top of that, the inning wasn’t over as the Cardinals had landed runners on first and third with one of their very best hitters, Matt Carpenter, at the plate.
The situation was about as high-leverage as the fifth inning gets, and the matchup was bad. Sure, on it’s face, it looks like a lefty on lefty advantage for the Cubs, but Wilson actually struggles against lefties far more than righties, and moreover, Wilson’s most obvious issue (20.6 BB% with the Cubs) happens to be one of Carpenters biggest strength (17.4 BB% in 2017).
Of course, after running the count full, Wilson struck out Carpenter on a 92 MPH cutter and sat the Cardinals down for good.
Wilson hasn’t stepped back up to the mound since recording that huge out for the Cubs on Friday, but Avila (who also caught him in Detroit) guesses that the next time he does, we’ll see the first-half Wilson back again.
“I think coming into that situation where you have no room for error was good for him,” said Avila, via CSN Chicago. “Those are the situations he’s been pitching in all season. There’s no thought process for him as far as working on pitches, working on mechanics, things like that … but coming into a situation where there’s no room for error and you’re really not thinking about that. You’re just, ‘Here it is, this is my stuff vs. you and whoever wins, wins.'”
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no secret sauce here. Justin Wilson isn’t magically a better pitcher in the highest leverage moments (in fact, the stats seems suggest he’s at his best in medium leverage moments, for whatever that’s worth). But I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that he could rediscover something about his mechanics or confidence because of a familiar outing like that. And for what it’s worth, Avila mentioned after the game that Wilson looked more like the guy he was in Detroit than the guy he’s been in Chicago.
And, hey, it hasn’t been exclusively bad outings/signs for Wilson. After recording an utterly terrifying 6.16 FIP through his first 5.2 innings pitched, Wilson’s bounced back with a 2.20 FIP in the 7.1 innings since.
And look at how insanely his K/BB ratio has rebounded during those same two periods:
First 5.2 IP: 13.9 K%, 25.0 BB%
Next 7.1 IP: 34.4 K%, 15.6 BB%
That’s a 20+ percentage point gain in his strikeout rate and a near-10 percentage point drop in his walk rate, which is ridiculous on both counts. And look at some other interesting differences between those two periods of time:
First 5.2 IP: .333 AVG, 18.2 Soft-hit%
Next 7.1 IP: .185 AVG, 25.0 Soft-hit%;
Thanks, in part, to more weak contact, batters are struggling to record as many hits off Wilson now as they were in his first stretch with the Cubs. And sure, his BABIP is lower now than it was in those first 5.2 IP, but .313 is still WELL above his career mark of .288 (and with more soft contact, a drop in BABIP was expected anyway).
There’s not much of a hard-conclusion here, other than to point out that, despite the still-existing struggles, Wilson has been a bit better lately and a familiar catcher believes his latest outing could do more to expedite his return to normalcy.
So to end things, I’ll simply leave you with some thoughts from Joe Maddon, who recognizes how crucial Wilson can be for the Cubs if he continues to figure things out.
“He could be a linchpin to a lot of this stuff right here,” Maddon said via CSN Chicago. “Look at his numbers in Detroit. They’re outstanding; not just OK. For whatever reason, he’s struggled a bit with his strike zone since he’s been here …. But we get this guy right, that could make a big difference down the stretch run and hopefully into the playoffs.”