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About Last Night: Matt Wisler opens up a can of success on the AL

Matt Wisler dominates in an inning against three players most notable for being children

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Detroit Tigers
Underrated: Matt Wisler’s pitch face
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I never thought I could be interested in Matt Wisler. Yet here I sit, having thought about Matt Wisler all day yesterday and enjoying it. Which proves I am yet another person who has doubted the immense power of Matt Wisler and his One Pitch. He is, quite simply, a fascinating pitcher.

How can a pitcher who throws a breaking ball 70% of the time never walk anyone? Almost everything about Matt Wisler makes me go—what? Even how ordinary he is! He is ordinary and extraordinary. I’m rambling now, so here’s the important thing: Last night Matt Wisler was the WhoopAss Can-Opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.

He struck out Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and retired Cavan Biggio in only 12 pitches. 10 of them were strikes. 8 of them were sliders. It was the quintessential Matt Wisler outing. It was Peak Wisler.

If you hadn’t seen the game thread from the other day, you may have missed when I talked about how Matt Wisler throws more sliders than anyone in baseball. This is true. He throws a historic number of sliders. Really, check it out.

Jeff Nelson makes an appearance on this list! Remember? Jeff Nelson?

Since 2005, Matt Wisler is 10th all time in slider usage. Normally, relying on one pitch is a not recommended unless your name is Mariano Rivera (or Pat Neshek, I guess?). But Matt Wisler has not only been relying on one pitch 70% of the time, it’s been working. In the 13.1 innings since he’s joined the Mariners bullpen from San Diego, Matt is rocking a pitcher slashline (ERA/FIP/xFIP) of: 2.19/1.85/3.54 (through 8/16).

Here are Matt Wisler’s MLB rankings (relievers):

WAR: T-9th

ERA: 37th

FIP: 11th

K/9: 52nd

BB/9: T-1st

K/BB: 3rd

You might assume that his slider is elite, then. That it’s movement is extraordinary—it must be to rely on it so heavily. It’s not! It’s entirely average! It ranks almost smack dab in the middle for vertical and horizontal movement for a right handed pitcher (ranked #221). The closest neighbor is Felix Hernandez’s slider, which is good, but also not elite.

How does a pitcher throw a mediocre pitch 70% of the time succeed in the MLB?

Let’s see.

Bo Bichette: Tunnel of Doom

To start we see the averageness on display. Here’s the first pitch to a hitter rocking an OPS over 1.000.

Watch Bichette pull his hands back; he’s having trouble picking up the movement

It’s a get-me-over slider that doesn’t have much bite and floats at the top of zone. But Bichette takes and Matt Wisler accomplishes his goal: getting ahead.

After a second slider off the plate a rare sighting—a fastball.

Watch the stare down after Bichette misses a pitch he knows he should have gotten

It only comes ~30% of the time so hitters, including Bo here, aren’t sitting on it. You can’t sit on the fastball because 7 out of 10 times you are going to be fooled by the slider. Bichette sat slider, and couldn’t get around on the mistake. You can see the frustration on his face.

Good News! Bo Bichette does not have commitment issues.

No stare down here as he was straight fooled. Check out this location on the slider. It’s not a hittable pitch. I don’t say that hyperbolically, either. It’s not a hittable pitch:

Wiff% on Matt Wisler’s Slider

So, why did Bo Bichette swing like his dad was evaluating him from the stands at a pitch no one should swing at? Likely because of the elite tunnel that Matt Wisler creates between his only two pitches.

Using Baseball Prospectus’ Pitch Tunneling data we can see that all of Matt Wisler’s pitch combinations (with a large enough sample) look closer than average to one another at the batter’s swing decision point. Good. But, the elite aspect of his tunneling is his Plate: PreMax Ratio. Which sounds confusing, but it’s really just comparing the distance between the pitches at the decision point, to their distance apart once they reach the plate.

The average ratio is 11.9, meaning that pitches end up about 12 times different than they look when a hitter decides to swing. Matt Wisler’s fastball and slider to righties end up with 15.3 times separation. To lefties, it’s over 19 times different. How good is this? Matt Wisler has the 7th best Fastball/Slider tunnel in all of baseball. Sorry, I want to say that bigger.

When Bo Bichette swung, he thought the ball was going to be about 15.3 times the amount of inches from where it actually was. It’s tough for a hitter to sit on a slider when a fastball could be coming. It’s even more difficult when it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between them.

Cavan Biggio: Lazily Go Where Every Fly Has Have Gone Before

OK, so we know Matt Wisler can tunnel. We know his pitch mix makes it difficult to sit on a fastball. But what about when the ball is put in play? What about left handers? What about Craig Biggio’s beautiful son?

We don’t need to belabor this one. After a fastball and a slider down and away, Matt Wisler threw his 93 MPH, extremely-average fastball to Cavan Biggio.

Matt Wisler defends his groin against the fly ball

This is the other thing that happens to a Matt Wisler pitch: the opposite field flyball.

Here are three facts about Matt Wisler:

  1. He allows 18% ground balls—2nd fewest in MLB.
  2. He induces 45% opposite field hits—3rd most in MLB.
  3. His contact is soft 30.3% of the time—T-8th in MLB.

So nearly half the balls in play go to the opposite field, one third of the hits are soft, and nearly three-fourths are in the air. This helps explain why Matt is in the 75th percentile of xWOBA, according to Statcast. The swings are late, they are underneath the ball, and they are catchable.

I was shocked that a slider-heavy repertoire would yield that many fly balls. And really, fly balls? In this economy? But most of the balls are hit in play off of his fastball, which he has started to locate higher in the zone.

This, I believe, is the largest change he’s made since becoming a Mariner: fastball location.

These lines indicate the level of stress I feel when Matt Wisler allows a ball in play

Since joining the M’s, the fastball is higher in the zone and the fly balls, infield flies, and opposite field hits have risen. Throwing a four seam up in the zone is the furthest thing from revolutionary, but it’s something he was not doing in San Diego.

OK, so the pitches are tunneled, the fastballs are thrown higher in the zone leading to frequent, weak, fly balls, but seriously—no walks in 13.1 innings? With a breaking ball dominant arsenal? How?

Vlad Jr.: Location, Location, Mechanics?

Here we go. The final test. The battle against Vlad Jr., who crushes mistakes like he crushes ERAs.

Vlad inexplicably raises his arms here.

This is an aggressively average looking slider. Yet it is perfectly painted on the outside corner and Vlad, despite every gene in his body begging him to, doesn’t swing.

There we go, there’s the Guerrero we remember.

A second slider with more vertical break that Vlad apparently was not expecting. A mighty, empty, hack. That’s two straight sliders painted perfectly on the outside corner.

This it it. This is how Matt Wisler has not allowed a walk. Despite throwing only 50% of his pitches in the strike zone—.01% off league average—he is allowed precisely no walks since his switch to the Mariners because he can hit the edge of the zone whenever he wants.

He throws 44% of his pitches on the edge of the zone while the average is 39%. Here’s what his location looks like since he became a Mariner.

It’s hot in the south

That’s 34% of his pitches located in four quadrants low and away. And the results on the swings? We already saw that hitters are not fairing well—wiffing nearly half their swings at pitches at the bottom of the zone.

Here’s the breakdown by pitch type.

The Slider:

This is a Hipster Heatmat showing Matt’s Slider locations

The pitches are all low and glove-side, moved up and down depending on whether he needs to catch a strike or induce a chase.

The Fastball:

I don’t even know if I like this heat map.

It’s the same location glove side, just elevated. This allows the fastball to elicit those late swings beneath the ball—they are sliders that just won’t break. More importantly, they are in the zone.

OK, back to the at bat. Next Vlad Jr. fouls off a slider that almost hits the plate. This is completely normal for him. This is also completely normal for Matt, who gets batters to chase outside the zone 43.5% of the time (since July), which is the third highest in baseball since for relievers.

Now he has him 0-2. Surely, a slider, yes? Low and away would be my guess.

Take a walk, Matt. You’ve earned it.

Ha! Haha! Hahaha!

Three sliders away on the edge of the zone and then a fastball inside at the knees that looks like a slider? Ha! Hahaha! Ridiculous!

This doesn’t work, though, without Wisler having both set-up Vlad Jr. with breaking pitches, and then locating that pitch perfectly. He did both. He’s been doing both for over a month.

So—how is Matt Wisler able to live on the edges like this? Well, for starters, his mechanics are simple and repeatable. I’m not a pitching coach or scout, but his motion looks low-effort. He throws from the stretch exclusively and there is very little extra movement in his delivery. His release point is also more consistent than most MLB pitchers. He keeps it simple. Throw one pitch most of the time. Throw it to the same spots. Mix in a fastball. Repeat. It’s working, why fix it?

Will he continue to suppress homer runs like this? Can he live with a 70% slider mix? Will he continue to be able to live on the outer edges of the plate and not walk the world?

Experience says no, probably not. But Matt Wisler is doing all of those things since he changed organizations. Maybe they tweaked something that’s allowed him to flourish. Maybe it’s a hot streak.

Regardless, Matt Wisler is an extreme pitcher with average stuff. You don’t encounter these profiles often. Let’s savor it.