Justin Wilson and the Rotating Depth Relievers Have Been Unheralded Stars

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Justin Wilson and the Rotating Depth Relievers Have Been Unheralded Stars

Chicago Cubs

When the Cubs traded for Justin Wilson* (and Alex Avila) a year ago, I was pretty thrilled with the move. Not only did the Cubs land an excellent offensive back-up catcher and veteran presence behind the plate (one who would ultimately become a starter for a small portion of the season), they also got a closer with a 2.68 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 40.1 IP to help push them down the stretch and into the postseason.

But even better than that, Wilson, like Jose Quintana, was the sort of mid-season addition that could help out not only last August/September/October, but also throughout this entire season. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced the Cubs didn’t think they were getting their closer for 2018, too.

Of course, the transition was anything but smooth (5.09 ERA) for Wilson, as he began walking every batter in sight. Things were so bad that he was even left off the NLCS roster altogether and threw just 0.2 innings in the NLDS.

And sadly, those command (and confidence) issues followed him into 2018. Through his first 17.1 innings pitched, Wilson walked 16 batters (20.5% walk rate), which took all the excitement out of his solid 3.68 ERA. Sure, he was striking out batters nearly 27% of the time and allowing just a .194 AVG against, but the walks were out of control. And it all culminated on May 19 in Cincinnati, where Wilson walked three batters, gave up a hit, and left without retiring a single batter.

Since then, however, things have been ENTIRELY different. In the 11.1 innings that have followed, Wilson cut his walk rate down to 14.0%, which is still high but FAR more manageable than something over 20%. He also improved his strikeout rate up to 44.2%. You don’t love seeing a walk rate that high, but if you’re going to have one, that’s the sort of strikeout rate that can make it manageable.

On top of that, Wilson has gotten a 50% ground ball rate since that blow-up in Cincinnati, while allowing identical 22.2% soft and hard-hit rates (both of which are absolutely excellent). Oh, and for the more results-oriented fans among us, I guess it’s worth pointing out that Wilson has not allowed a single earned run during that stretch and has a 1.32 FIP behind that 0.00 ERA. 

With Carl Edwards Jr. on the shelf, Wilson’s sudden emergence (or, rather, re-emergence into the guy he once was/always could be), was extremely well-timed.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

But he’s not the only reliever who deserves some credit. As Wilson filled in for Edwards, a revolving door between Triple-A Iowa and the back of the Cubs bullpen has back-filled for him. And each of Randy Rosario, Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Justin Hancock, Rob Zastryzny, and, now, Anthony Bass deserves a major tip of the cap.

Anthony Bass (2.0 IP): 3H, 0ER, 0BB, 1K
Rob Zastryzny (2.0 IP): 1H, 0ER, 1BB, 2K
Cory Mazzoni (7.2 IP): 5H, 1ER, 5BB, 5K
Justin Hancock (10.1 IP): 4H, 2ER, 7BB, 10K
Randy Rosario (12.2 IP): 5H, 1ER, 6BB, 9K
Luke Farrell (15.1 IP): 15H, 6ER, 4BB, 24K

Although it might not seem like much, given that most of these guys tend to pitch in lower leverage moments (although not exclusively), they’ve had a very real, very tangible impact. Sometimes, that means keeping the Cubs in games close enough to come back, but most of the time it’s simply providing quality innings of relief that don’t completely blow ballgames so the heavy hitters in the bullpen – like Wilson, now – can come in when it matters and do their thing.

Even Cubs President Theo Epstein has been pretty effusive in his praise: “Pro scouting is more than just like a big free agent sign or a big trade,” Epstein said. “It’s also a lot of depth moves and in that regard, it’s been a really, really nice year for our pro scouting department and our organizational depth.” Epstein continued, and got a little more specific: “Not only are there a number of guys throwing well in the Iowa ‘pen, but they’ve come up here and given us 50 or so innings of really good baseball collectively. Stepping into big games and high leverage spots and performing well.”

When you consider that the back end of the bullpen is usually the positional group most expected to disappoint you, this group has been quite the revelation. And the effect they’ve had on the rest of the Cubs bullpen, and, thus, overall record shouldn’t be understated.

So here’s a tip of our cap, back-end guys. And to you too, Justin Wilson. Your hot streak came justin time (I really had to ruin this nice post with that, didn’t I?).

*I had to check every single “Wilson” in this post, because I’ve become so accustom to spelling it with the extra “L” a la “Willson Contreras.” I think I got them al.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami