I imagine one of the things about the nature of sports blogging that grates most on the athletes and coaches that play those sports is after the fact second guessing. The idea of second guessing is anathema to the mindset of a professional athlete. It's why one yard slants are defended forever, why Mike Zunino has to be convinced he's getting a hit every time up, and it's why Swaggy P knows that 3-pointer is going in; even when....well.....
So I venture into this topic knowing that it probably elicits eye rolls from a lot of baseball people. The Mariners lost last night; it was one game, a close game, and those losses happen. Tom Wilhelmsen has been largely very effective since he was put into the closer role at the end of last month. Last night was his first blown save, after all. But I can't help but look back at one particular at-bat last night and, well, second guess a bit.
Now, to be clear - Tom Wilhelmsen's primary issue last night was he couldn't throw strikes. While Rob Drake's strikezone bobbed and weaved like an amoebic Meteroid Wilhelmsen was missing spots all inning. 17 strikes in 32 pitches is a real problem. But, well, you saw what happened. Lorenzo Cain ripped a cutter for a single and then the BABIP gods smote the Mariners, as Eric Hosmer's broken bat single put runners on 1st and 3rd, with one out. Now, the at bat, and Kendrys Morales.
The plan was obvious. Kendrys Morales has had a nice little season for the Royals this year. A 130 wRC+ is in fact 48 points higher than it was just last year, when an endless supply of double plays and pop ups played a key role in the Mariners missing the playoffs by a single game. You remember that? Me too! Kendrys Morales sucks.
Anyway, the obvious plan is to get one of the game's slowest players to hit a ball on the ground, turn two, win the game, and feast on a smorgasbord of schadenfreude. Wilhelmsen attempted to exact this result with the following pitch sequence:
Now, let's backtrack. On the year, Tom Wilhelmsen has only thrown his changeup 9.8% of the year. In fact almost 80% of Wilhelmsen's pitches this year have been either fastball or slider/cutter. This makes sense. Coming up Wilhelmsen was known for that big fastball and hammer curve. The changeup was a late addition to his arsenal, and is arguably his worst pitch. I was curious if perhaps Wilhelmsen had started using the change more since his return to the closer role. So, using Brooks, hallowed be its name among resources, I looked at each appearance since August 23, when Wilhelmsen began closing regularly. Apologies for the rudimentary nature of the data, I was primarily looking for changeups:
The main takeaway I get from this is that in that single at bat to Morales last night Wilhelmsen threw more changeups than he had total in any single appearance in the closer role this year. I don't have access to detailed scouting reports, and I recognize that an off speed pitch down in the zone is theoretically more likely to induce a ground ball than a high fastball, but I still can't help but feel that allowing a situation to so completely and singularly get you away from your best pitches is bad strategy.
Of course Morales, to his very begrudging credit, managed to lay off all those low change ups. I'm sure we can all remember dozens (seemingly hundreds!) of times where Morales swung at similarly low pitches in a Mariner uniform and either struck out or hit that much-desired ground ball. This is baseball, where each decision, even the best and worst, do nothing more than tack on a bit of weight to one side of a flipped coin.
Tom Wilhelmsen has been an excellent relief pitcher over the past month+. His comfort and confidence in the closer role has probably helped a lot of the young and inexperienced arms out there gain their mental footing. But he's made his hay with gas and a hammer. The next time the game's on the line, I'd much rather see him go out with his best stuff than what we saw last night. So it is.