Justin Wilson Returns To New York Yankees’ Bullpen With New Approach

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As a member of the 2015 New York Yankees‘ bullpen, Justin Wilson contributed to a franchise record. That year, the pitching staff collectively struck out more opposing batters than any in Yankees’ history.

Later that offseason, Wilson was traded to the Detroit Tigers, and that record failed to last past the 2016 season.

Now six years since he last donned the pinstripes, Wilson is back in Yankees’ Spring Training, ready to unite with Chad Green and Luis Cessa, whom the Yankees acquired for him.

“I’m just excited, man, this squad on paper clearly is outstanding,” Wilson said Thursday in his first virtual press conference of the year. “I think we’re going to be better than anyone could put on paper.”

As Wilson gets to know Green, Cessa, and his new teammates, he brings an evolved pitching approach compared to 2015. Although he feels his style is unchanged, he made tweaks to his repertoire over the years. His four-seam fastball is now complemented with a cutter, rather than a sinker.

Repertoire Changes

According to Baseball Savant, Wilson threw his sinker 26.9% of the time for his second-most utilized pitch in 2015. The cutter was third at 17.5% usage. With that pitch mix, Wilson posted a 132 ERA+ in 61 innings pitched and a 9.7 K/9 to go along with a 5-0 record.

In 2019 and 2020, he threw his cutter just under 40% of the time in both seasons and abandoned the sinker. The increased cutter usage worked for him, when healthy. Although 2019 was a better season than 2020 for Wilson, he posted a collective 143 ERA+ in 58 2/3 innings and a 10.3 K/9 in those seasons.

There were negative consequences, such as an increased walk rate, at 4.3 BB/9 in those two seasons. Still, he is content with his repertoire.

“We’ll let Zack Britton do all the sinkers, and I’ll stick to the four-seam,” Wilson said.

Wilson has adjusted the cutter usage over the years. What he likes most about the pitch is it’s feel and placement while providing more depth to induce ground balls.

Since he found the optimal four-seam fastball-cutter usage, Wilson’s ground ball rates have increased. In 2017 and 2018, after Wilson started throwing the cutter as his second-most used pitch, his ground ball rates were 37.9% and 37.3%, respectively. He was throwing the cutter no higher than 22.5% of the time in either of those years. In 2019 and 2020, when Wilson started throwing the cutter increasingly more frequently, the ground ball rates go to 52.5% and 47.2%, respectively.

Mound Positioning

Additionally, right-handed batters performed better against the left-handed Wilson than left-handed batters in his last stint with the Yankees. Aside from tweaking his repertoire, he has moved over on the rubber to give lefties a different look and a sharper angle. That switch has paid off, as his splits against left-handed batters are much improved since 2018.

As his process evolves, he keeps the same mindset.

“I’ve just built on consistency,” Wilson said. “Knowing my strengths [and] building off of those. With all the analytics we do have, I’ve made minor adjustments here and there.”

Looking Towards 2021

Wilson adds more depth to the Yankees’ bullpen. By the end of the 2020 ALDS, manager Aaron Boone was hesitant to use anyone outside of Green, Britton, and Aroldis Chapman in high-leverage situations.

Now, additions such as Wilson and Darren O’Day, bring more veteran options to a pitching staff that Wilson already thinks is “impressive.” He does not think he will ever be a situational lefty, and he hopes to alleviate some of the pressure from Britton and Chapman as the 2021 season unfolds.

Players/Coaches Mentioned: Justin Wilson, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Zack Britton, Aaron Boone, Aroldis Chapman, Darren O’Day

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images