Sunday, June 20, 2010

Is the Giants' Brian Wilson An Elite Closer?

Brian Wilson is a constant source of frustration for Giants fans. It has been a far too common sight to see Wilson struggle in the ninth with a one run lead, and load the bases either through a series of hits, walks and/or both. Sometimes Wilson closes the game out and the Giants win. Sometimes he doesn't and the Giants lose. To put it nicely, it is more comfortable for a Bruce Willis to watch Ashton Kutcher on the screen in the movie "The Killers" than for a Giants fan to watch Wilson in the ninth at times.

So, I can see why the talk of Brian Wilson being an elite closer may sound like hogwash. Believe me. If you asked me the same question in Spring Training, I would have given you an emphatic "No way" and would have believed that a sequel to "Striptease" was more likely. (Boy...I'm really running with the Demi Moore-Bruce Willis divorce jokes, huh?)

When you look at the stats though, can make the argument.

At the very least, Wilson has improved. During his All-Star season of 2008, Wilson posted 41 saves in 62.1 IP. However, his numbers other than his saves were far from impressive. He had a 4.62 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP, a K/BB ratio of 2.39 and a FIP of 3.93.

In 2008, he was closer to Matt Herges than Robb Nen in terms of Giants closers.

Last year though, he made tremendous strides. While he didn't make the NL All-Star roster, he certainly made a case that he deserved one by year's end. He did earn less saves than 2008 (38), but he pitched more innings (72.1 IP) and posted a better ERA (2.74), WHIP (1.20), K/BB ratio (3.07) and FIP (2.50).

And this year? He's on pace to surpass his already solid 2009 numbers, and has put himself in the discussion of perhaps earning a spot on this year's NL All-Star roster (Of course, that's if Charlie Manuel doesn't fill all the reserves with Phillies first).

First off, his K percentage is up (from 10.33 to 12.58) and his BB percentage is down (3.36 to 3.07), which has produced a stellar K/BB ratio (4.10). While his WHIP (1.23) is a bit underwhelming, his FIP (1.90), back up the assertion that he's been a better pitcher than what his 2.15 ERA says (which is always the challenge for relievers because ERA numbers can fluctuate so easily due to the lack of innings in comparison to starters).

The most startling stat? The fact that he is putting up these numbers despite having a BABIP of .375 (which is almost 75 points above the league average and 55 points higher than his BABIP last season).

What has been the secret to Wilson's success this year? Well, he's getting ahead in the count against more hitters for one.

In 2008, Wilson had a first strike percentage of 57.7 percent (below the league average of 58 percent). Last year, the percentage was 60.4. This season? His first strike percentage is 66.7 percent.

Why is this important? Being ahead of the count has paid dividends in allowing him to throw his slider more (7.9 percent in comparison to only 5.7 percent last year), which has become his most effective pitch this year. Sure, Wilson's fastball has some serious velocity (96.1 MPH), but his slider has been the better out pitch.

This year, his fastball is valued by Fangraphs at 1.26 runs above average per 100 pitches. His slider on the other hand? It is valued at 5.26 runs above average per 100 pitches. (Note: the higher the number, the better, like UZR; basically, think that it saves 5.26 runs above average per 100 pitches, for example.)

The solid repertoire of a fastball, slider and cutter (which he throws 27.1 percent of the time), has made Wilson a force to be reckoned with this year. According to ZiPS projections, Wilson is one pace for 70.1 IP. Those kind of innings logged would be beneficial to the Giants bullpen, which has struggled at times this year, especially Jeremy Affeldt, who was shelled again in his latest outing against the Blue Jays.

Now, Wilson may have improved from 2009 and yes, he may be a solid closer. That being said, I'm sure some naysayers are thinking "He's not one of the league's top closers and he's not an All-Star, either."

Let's take a look at some of the saves leaders in Major League Baseball.

Matt Capps of the Nationals is atop the league with 20 saves, Neftali Feliz of the Rangers and Kevin Gregg of the Blue Jays have 18 saves, and Heath Bell of the Padres, Jon Rauch of the Twins and Francisco Cordero of the Reds have 17 saves.

Those are the closers, along with Wilson, who are in the top-eight of the league in terms of saves.

However, how many of those top-seven guys, Wilson included, are in the top-ten in terms of FIP? One.

That one closer is Wilson.

How many of those guys are in the top ten in terms of xFIP?

Only Wilson.

So, Giants fans, as hard as it is for some to stomach, Wilson is finally a worthy successor to fan favorite Robb Nen. We had to suffer through Dustin Hermanson, Matt Herges and Armando Bentiez to get to this point, but the day of finally having a reliable closer in the ninth has come. Not only does he deserve a spot on the NL All-Star roster, but he deserves to be talked about when baseball fans talk about the league's best closers.

Because Wilson has been up there with the league's best so far in 2010, and he has the numbers (beyond saves) to back it up.


  1. Nice article. I have not been one to rag on Wilson, sure, he's no Nen, but most people aren't, that's not a disgrace.

    I've felt that he's been pretty good, but now I can point to your argument as substantial proof of that premise. Also, if you go by BP's WRXL stat, he is #2 on their list right now, behind the surprising Ryan Franklin. BP's study of success in the playoffs found that the best teams in going deeper into the playoffs had a closer with good WRXL.

    Sidenote: I had always felt that Duncan was a bit over-hyped in regards to turning lousy pitchers into something useful, but I think that his conversion of Franklin, who wasn't any good when he was using steroids and worse once he was caught, has done it for me.

  2. Thanks as always OGC. That's a good point about the the WRXL. Hence, the big argument in the past that Wilson had the saves, but not much else statistically. Now, he has those numbers to back it up, and I think Giants fans should be happy with Wilson, regardless of how he gets it done in the ninth. The bottom line? He gets it done.

    As for Duncan? I kind of agree with you on the over hype, but he does have success stories. I lived in Washington for about five years, so I saw Franklin on television consistently. I can tell you that he was a far different pitcher in Seattle than in St. Louis. The addition of a curveball to his repertoire has done wonders for him. He primarily was a fastball, slider, changeup guy in Seattle and induced a lot of flyballs. In St. Louis, he throws his curve over 20 percent of the time, and he's induced more groundballs. He's also eliminated the slider almost completely from his pitching repertoire, as he throws it less than 1 percent of the time after throwing it over 20 percent of the time in 2008.

    To me, all those signs point to coaching, and you have to give credit where credit is due.