The Tom Wilhelmsen Miracle

Nothing Tom Wilhelmsen actually did this season was miraculous, save maybe for existing in the first place (ed. note: oooooh). In the headline I am exaggerating to make a point. I do it pretty often, and it is a common technique employed by bad writers.

Say what you want about Tom Wilhelmsen's reasons for getting out of baseball*, but the man has a hell of a story to tell. Unfortunately he wound up kind of having to compete with Steve Delabar and Alex Liddi in the Mariners' clubhouse, but Wilhelmsen left baseball in 2003, returned in 2009, and broke camp with the big league team in 2011. It's not unbelievable, because I believe it, but it's the plot to an inspirational movie that hasn't been made about finding oneself and then pursuing one's dreams. It would probably hit bigger than Moneyball.

* do not actually

Of course, when Wilhelmsen first appeared as a Mariner, he was raw. He was raw, and he was wild. Working out of the back of the bullpen, Wilhelmsen pitched in eight games through May 7th, walking nine and striking out eight. Just 56% of his pitches were strikes, and he earned the demotion that he wound up getting. In the Majors, Wilhelmsen looked to be in over his head.

And that was fine. Wilhelmsen should have been in over his head, because he broke camp with a Major League Baseball team after one year in the minors that followed six years off. His velocity and stuff were there, but he was rusty, and that was perfectly understandable. Wilhelmsen needed reps, and the Major Leagues weren't the right place for him to get them.

So off Wilhelmsen went in early May to double-A Jackson, where he worked as a starter. He kind of fell off the radar a little bit - not because he wasn't talented, but because he looked to be a long way off from Major League-ready earlier on. When Wilhelmsen returned to the Mariners' roster at the beginning of August, it was surprising, because nobody figured he'd be back that quickly.

And that's when he caught fire. For most of the final two months of the season, Tom Wilhelmsen was dominant out of the Mariners' bullpen. He was the guy with the fastball and the curve that we all quietly wished he would be out of camp. He didn't back down against anybody and he came with hard-to-hit strike after hard-to-hit strike. He established himself as a legitimately effective power reliever.

My favorite part of this story is...well my favorite part is how well Wilhelmsen pitched at the end. But my second-favorite part is what came in between Wilhelmsen's stints with Seattle. Here's Tom Wilhelmsen, Jackson General:

Year Tm Lev ERA G GS IP H R HR BB SO HBP
2011 Jackson AA 5.49 14 12 60.2 66 45 8 26 40 7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/18/2011.

In double-A, Tom Wilhelmsen was bad. Or at least, he was not good. 26 walks, seven hit batters and 40 strikeouts in just over 60 innings. Those are not good numbers. There was no statistical indication that Wilhelmsen was ready to re-join the Mariners. But re-join them he did, and he pitched his ass off.

To review:

In Majors: not good
In double-A: not good
In Majors: good

The difference between Wilhelmsen's stints is stark. It's hard to believe these numbers came from the same guy in the same season:

Stint 1 Stint 2
Strike% 56% 70%
K/BB 0.9 5.5
FA (mph) 93.8 95.9

And you could argue that even kind of undersells things. In Wilhelmsen's first three games after returning, he walked three and struck out two. Over his final 14 games, he walked one and struck out 20. He threw 74% of those 240 pitches for strikes. He threw three-quarters of his pitches for strikes.

Tom Wilhelmsen found the zone, and once he found it, he took off. He started bringing his fastball down, and it worked. He started bringing his curveball down, and it worked. He all but eliminated his changeup down the stretch, and it didn't matter. There wasn't a player on the team who finished on a better run than Tom Wilhelmsen.

The whole thing is just incredible. We can't ignore the fact that we're dealing with small samples of innings. It's the truth, whether we like it or not. Sometimes relievers have cold spells or hot spells that don't necessarily reflect their true ability. But Wilhelmsen looked completely different after coming back, like a guy who'd figured it out. Wilhelmsen looked like he belonged, where early on he looked about three levels too high.

Now, if they want, the Mariners can probably plan on having an effective Wilhelmsen in their bullpen in 2012. I don't know if they still have any organizational interest in trying him as a starter, and I don't know if they ought to, but it's nice to have that kind of piece, especially headed into an offseason in which Brandon League could become available on the market. Flexibility, and everything.

Back in April, Tom Wilhelmsen could tell a baseball story for the ages. Now it's October, and his story's even better. The 2011 season was awful and I have no desire to go through another season quite like it, but as bright spots are concerned, the story of Tom Wilhelmsen could give you a tan.

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