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40-in-25: Wyatt Mills

The art of pitching can be hard to master

Pitcher in Mariners navy alternate jersey releases a pitch from a shoulder-height sidearm slot.
Low 3⁄4 slot in action.
Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

[Ed. note: Please welcome Louisa Fish-Sadin to the Lookout Landing staff! Lou is a trained dancer, an educator specializing in environmental justice and religious literacy, a waterfowl-keeper, and a watercolorist. She loves a pitcher’s duel, a well-placed double, a redemption arc, and baseball on the radio over TV.]

There is another Wyatt Mills. He does not, so far as I can ascertain, play baseball. Other Wyatt Mills is about four years older than Baseball Wyatt Mills and has made a successful career for himself as a painter, working in the visual legacy of Picasso, Rauschenberg, and Warhol. Think cubist collage portraits: jumbles of vibrant blocks of color, gestural lines, and body parts.

In an interview with Artnet in 2018, Other Wyatt Mills spoke about the process by which these portraits take shape, saying, “I find myself taking little bits and pieces of different people or photographs and piling them on top of one another until a new persona forms and grows itself. The previous layers flicker through the final image like a backlight, and in this way for me it resembles the memories and past versions of ourselves that we carry on our shoulders in the present.”

We are each a palimpsest of our past selves; each year brings pieces of our past to the fore, evoked by chance or circumstance, while other pieces fade into the background. The 40-in-25 series, and the Spring Training season in general, gives us a chance to recall some of the pieces of these players’ pasts and conjecture about the image that this year might reveal.

2021 Wyatt Mills portrait from Seattle Mariners Photo Day.
How oft have I pondered the stuff of which men are made...
Photo by Robert Beck/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Since the Mariners drafted Baseball Wyatt Mills in the third round in 2017, he has etched repeated minor league successes into his record, followed by half a season of work in the majors last year. The tools with which he fashioned those successes are still there: the side-arm delivery, the slider with exciting movement, the over-50% ground ball rate at every level of play. As the 2022 season opens, the question for Mills is whether he can make the adjustments needed to replicate his minor league successes against big-league-caliber hitters.

Baseball Wyatt Mills, too, is a palimpsest of his past selves. He brings to this season the Gonzaga relief pitcher who put up a 1.79 ERA in 40 innings his senior year. The kid struggling to adjust to Double-A hitters when he was first called up to Arkansas in 2018, his usually-high strikeout rate falling precipitously to 17.2%, and the bounce-backer who found his command again in the AFL later that year. The strong Double-A player of 2019, who posted a 30.4% K rate, a 2.63 FIP, and was selected to play for Team USA. The self-starter who put in significant work on his strength and command at home when the 2020 minor league season got COVID-canceled and came to the Fall Instructional League ready to impress. The MLB rookie, called up from Tacoma on May 1 of last year and debuting the same night with his parents in the crowd. In his first showing with the Mariners, Mills came into the eighth inning with the M’s down 10-1 to the Angels and retired the side in order.

Between May and October of last season, the Mariners optioned Wyatt Mills to Tacoma and then recalled him five (5) times. He ended up pitching 12.2 innings for the M’s and 28.2 for the Rainiers over the course of the season. That’s hardly a consistent work experience and far from the sample size needed to conclude, well, anything, but Mills did demonstrate his typically high GB% (51.1) in his games for the M’s. Unfortunately, he also demonstrated a poor K% (17.2) and BB% (10.9). In contrast, his K% in Tacoma was a whopping 44.7 and his BB% down to 6.1. Again, no particular conclusion because sample size, but interesting that those are opposing extremes when put in the context of his numbers at the other minor league levels.

Select stats from each year and level of play.
FanGraphs

Mills’ control and command have never been his biggest asset, particularly against lefties (as is true for many with his arm slot). His appearances so far this spring have been mediocre: on Sunday he gave up two runs on two hits in one inning of work, while walking one and striking out two. In his inning yesterday he gave up a single, a flyout, and then showed off his athleticism fielding a ground ball into a double play. Perhaps with a more predictable pitching schedule, some adjustments, and further exposure to major league batters he’ll become a contributing big-league bullpen arm. It is, in my opinion, more likely that he’ll bounce between Tacoma and Seattle this year to provide depth as needed.

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Later in his Artnet interview, Other Wyatt Mills tells a story about the transformation of something that wasn’t working:

“Once I was working on a terrible painting. It was really bad and I had spent a lot of time on it. I finally got so frustrated one night that I turned off the lights, tossed it on the ground, and started Frisbee-ing paint at it. I poured random oil mediums over it, stabbed it with a palette knife a few times, then went to a bar. The next day, when I came back, there was this really interesting thing on the ground… Ever since then I’ve tried to add an element of surprise to my process, whether it’s using new materials… or even cutting apart two paintings and conjoining them.”

The Mariners pitching development team has made a name for themselves helping struggling or injured guys make adjustments and find their upside. Baseball Wyatt Mills isn’t a high-ceiling reliever, but he brings some experience (2020 in particular) with adjusting to unexpected career developments, so here’s hoping that he’s willing to cut the pieces apart and put them back together a new way if that’s what it takes to make it work. I’ll be rooting for the element of surprise.