Wilson's live arm complements complete repertoire
The day following a pitching performance by Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Justin Wilson, I asked several scouts and colleagues what they thought of the left-hander.
I came away the night before as a true believer in his power arm, his ability to control his pitches and his mound presence.
To a person, the response I got about Wilson's performance was unanimous. They were wowed. I was wowed. The most common response was, "Wow, I had no idea he had that type of power arm." He does.
I first saw Wilson in Spring Training. I was impressed. But I wanted to see more. Then I got to scout him in a regular-season game. My response was the same.
Wilson graduated from Buchanan High School in Clovis, Calif. He was a three-year letterman as a first baseman/pitcher.
Curious about Wilson's background, I contacted Buchanan head baseball coach Tom Donald about Wilson. Donald indicated that Wilson was a good hitter as well as a quality pitcher.
According to coach Donald, as a very young pitcher, Wilson "didn't know where the ball was going all the time, but you could see his potential."
Donald indicated Wilson continued to progress to the point of becoming a "dominant, big-game" pitcher.
Wilson followed his high school success with a decision regarding his future. He elected to attend college rather than sign a professional contract when the Los Angeles Dodgers chose him in the 37th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.
Wilson, 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, was interested in attending either Long Beach State or Fresno State University. He chose Fresno State.
The left-handed pitcher started his collegiate career playing both first base and pitching. He evolved exclusively into a pitcher and was the winning pitcher in the 2008 College World Series against the University of Georgia. He threw eight innings in that start, yielding only five hits in an eventual 8-1 Fresno State championship-clinching victory. That performance helped confirm Wilson's status on the projectable prospect map.
After his junior year in college, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Wilson in the fifth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
Exclusively a pitcher at the time he signed and turned professional, Wilson signed his contract rather late. He was assigned to Class A Advanced Lynchburg of the Carolina League. He pitched to a 4.50 ERA while starting 26 games and going 6-8 with a 1.49 WHIP over 116 innings. At age 21, his baseball career had begun.
Everything about Wilson's performance improved the following season. He pitched for Double-A Altoona in the Eastern League. Winning 11 games and losing eight, Wilson's ERA improved to 3.09, an outstanding achievement. He pitched 142 2/3 innings.
In 2011, Wilson was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis. His first real hiccup occurred when his ERA increased to 4.13. His walk-to-strikeout ratio was negatively impacted as well. And while his year wasn't a disaster, the increased competition took its toll.
Throughout his career, however, Wilson has shown ability to pitch with high velocity and very adequate secondary pitches. Inconsistent command and control were his most pressing challenges. In 2011, he walked 67 in 124 1/3 innings. Walking an average of four batters per nine innings was a bit of a concern.
Last season with Indianapolis, Wilson's strikeout rate increased by a third, his hits per nine innings went down and he went 9-6. He also participated in two combined no-hitters while posting a 3.78 ERA, a big improvement. In short, Wilson's portfolio as a quality pitcher started to take shape. In 135 2/3 innings pitched, Wilson was a rotation starter in 25 of the 29 games in which he worked.
Wilson's command and control improved enough last season to earn him a promotion to Pittsburgh. On Aug. 10, 2012, Wilson pitched out of the bullpen for the Pirates. In all, he threw 4 2/3 innings of relief in eight games. Wilson proved his ability as a quality pitcher to be counted upon.
For some, Wilson profiles as a prototypical situational left-hander coming in games to face left-handed hitters. I think he has the ability to face all hitters. He has a wide variety of pitches that he can use for an inning at a time or for several innings in one outing.
Wilson's most prominent pitch is a four-seam moving fastball that he brings to the plate at close to 95 mph. When he throws his secondary pitches, his velocity declines and he changes the balance and eye levels of hitters. For examples, his cutter is usually a 91 mph pitch with that short, late life boring into the hands of the hitter.
In the games I scouted, Wilson threw a very effective high-movement curveball at around 77-78 mph. He also throws an occasional changeup and slider in his very complete repertoire.
As Donald indicated, Wilson has a very live arm and goes "right after hitters."
If Wilson is still grappling with command issues, it hasn't shown in the games I have scouted. His control was consistent and he was able to hit the catcher's target with regularity. It's very possible that if the need arises, the Pirates will be tempted to move him to the rotation. That's how valuable he is. He can pitch in any role.
It was obvious why there was little disagreement when I asked scouts about their opinion of Wilson. He has ability. He has a live, strong arm. He knows how to pitch. And he can certainly pitch out of the bullpen or the rotation.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans will really appreciate having Wilson available to take charge when facing opposing hitters.