It has taken me forever to get around to writing this post, because I didn't know how to write it. I usually don't have much of a plan when I get into writing something, but here I kept asking myself "what are you trying to say?" And I kept answering "Tom Wilhelmsen is good." Okay, well, does that need to be written? That Felix Hernandez is pretty good too, and maybe I should look for more depth.
But now I'm writing this anyway. If only because perhaps not enough can be written about Tom Wilhelmsen's amazing career path. I mean, in timeline form:
2003: good in minors
2009: mostly retired
2010: good in minors
2011, early: bad in Majors
2011, middle: bad in minors
2011, late: great in Majors
2012: great in Majors
You remember that it made for a great story when Wilhelmsen broke camp with thea year ago. But he pitched poorly and earned a demotion to double-A, where he pitched poorly. Then something clicked and Wilhelmsen was money down the stretch. That success has carried over into 2012.
All of this is old news, but perhaps you don't realize the numbers Wilhelmsen has posted since coming back from Jackson last August. He's thrown 55 innings, facing 219 batters. He's struck out 27 percent of them, he's walked five percent of them unintentionally, and he's surrendered 20 runs. There have been four dingers.
The strikeouts and the walks just blow my mind. They get more and more incredible as I continue to think about them. In that regard they're like the opposite of magic tricks. You see a magic trick and you're like "oh wow!" and then you think about it for a while and you're like "oh right of course." The Wilhelmsen case is just bizarre. In his first stint with the Mariners, he threw 56 percent of his pitches for strikes. With Jackson, he walked nearly ten percent of his opponents. Then Wilhelmsen came back to Seattle, and since then he's thrown better than 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. You know who routinely posts strike rates around 68 percent? Roy Halladay, that's who. And some other guys, but Halladay's the most impressive name and I'm trying to build Wilhelmsen up.
Blake Beavan throws plenty of strikes as well, but obviously a huge difference between Wilhelmsen and Beavan is that Wilhelmsen doesn't allow that much contact. And this gets into the original idea behind this blog post.
I love talking about a pitcher's contact rate allowed, and I don't spend a lot of time differentiating between contact allowed on strikes and contact allowed on balls. But it seems to me that a good measure of dominance might be in-zone contact rate, because then the best guys are still missing bats even though they're pitching around the hitters' wheelhouse. Wilhelmsen has a contact rate just under 83 percent on strikes, while the league has an average contact rate above 87 percent on strikes. Even when Wilhelmsen comes into the zone, he's difficult.
More difficult than Brandon League. A big part of what drives this is that Wilhelmsen has a plus fastball. When Michael Pineda was coming up, something that got us excited was that his fastball could miss bats, giving him an excellent strikeout foundation. When you can get whiffs with your heater, there's less pressure to develop and work off the other stuff. Since Wilhelmsen returned, a fifth of the swings against his fastball have whiffed, which is better than the league contact rate overall, including offspeed pitches.
With just about every flawed young player, we talk about them as if they're all but guaranteed to make adjustments. With flawed young pitchers, we say things like "if he can ever figure out how to locate his pitches better, he could take off." Most pitchers who struggle with command or control always struggle with command or control. They tease, and seldom do more. Tom Wilhelmsen figured that shit out, and he got better in a jiffy. He got better coming back from double-A, even though he wasn't good in double-A. Whatever the team saw that it liked, it wasn't there in the numbers.
Eventually the Tom Wilhelmsen story will top out, but we thought that might have happened when he made the team out of spring training in 2011. He only continues to climb, and now Brandon League's problems have allowed Wilhelmsen to get experience as a closer. If he stays healthy, Wilhelmsen should become a regular closer soon, and then he'll be worth millions. The Tom Wilhelmsen story, when it's written, will fly off bookshelves and convince countless young adults not to get stuck doing something until or unless they're sure it's what they want to do.
Wilhelmsen, of course, isn't Mariano Rivera. He isn't a guy who, when he comes into a game, you assume will set the opponent down in order. He throws a crazy amount of strikes to righties, and he limits the amount of contact they make, but he throws fewer strikes to lefties, and more balls get hit. Wilhelmsen doesn't have the changeup or the cutter that could make him completely lights-out.
But what Tom Wilhelmsen is now is an outstanding late-innings Major League reliever, and what he was a year ago was an ineffective starter in double-A. What he was two years before that was nothing. Not nothing nothing, but nothing relevant to baseball. Statistically, Tom Wilhelmsen's development has been nearly improbable. Pulling back, maybe you think Wilhelmsen was stupid and selfish for quitting baseball to travel, tend bar, and smoke weed. Or maybe you've never felt more inspired. The Tom Wilhelmsen story has lessons for everyone. I should really write this book before some motherfucker beats me to it.