Leaner Justin Wilson aims to add off-speed spice to arsenal

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Wilson

Lakeland, Fla. – You might notice a change in Justin Wilson this year. He looks different, for starters, leaner, more physically fit. And if his offseason preparations pay off, he will pitch differently, with a more complete arsenal.

“I took a little initiative and started eating healthy,” he said on Saturday after completing a morning workout. “Just mainly eating heathy to stay healthy. I ended up losing a little weight, but not a whole lot because I had a great workout routine.”

Wilson, a California native now living in Texas, spent his offseason essentially redefining himself at the elite training facilities at Texas Christian University. Wilson, listed at 6-2 and 205 pounds, was put on a nutrition and workout plan and he maintained a throwing program, throwing to former Tigers catcher Bryan Holaday.

That’s what a proud competitor does after enduring a rocky season. And no doubt the 2016 season was pure frustration for Wilson and for the Tigers, who traded two top pitching prospects (Luis Cessa and Chad Green) to the Yankees to get him.

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“There were times when I felt really good and was stringing some stuff together and felt like years previous,” he said. “Then I’d go through a couple outings of just blow-up, where it would take me a while to get back into it.”

Wilson established his erratic pattern early in the season. He didn’t give up a run in his first 12 outings as a Tiger, 11 innings of pure dominance. Then he was tagged for nine runs in the next eight outings. And that’s how it went the entire year.

He finished with a 4.14 ERA and a 1.330 WHIP – not what he nor the Tigers were looking for from the power-armed left-hander. Worse, Wilson struggled to get left-handed hitters out. They hit .308 against him with a .429 slugging percentage and .772 OPS.

“You have a few weeks out of the pen where you are bad and it just destroys the numbers,” Wilson said. “And the other thing, getting the lefties out – they hit a God-awful number off me. You take 10 to 15 of those at-bats and get a different result and it changes the year for a reliever.”

Wilson went back to the drawing board this offseason, re-evaluating his pitch repertoire and approach.

Justin Wilson finished with a 4.14 ERA and a 1.330 WHIP last season.

From 2013 to 2015, he had good success using primarily power: a four-seam fastball (96 mph) and cutter. Last season, however, with no decrease in velocity, he wasn’t blowing the fastball by hitters as regularly.

In fact, according to Brooks Baseball, hitters hit .304 off his fastball. They hit .203 against his cutter, but his command of that pitch was spotty.

Wilson set out this offseason to rectify the problem. He has reintegrated a change-up, a pitch he’s mostly abandoned since reaching the big leagues, and developed a true slider.

“The change-up I’ve had forever but I never really used it out of the pen consistently,” he said. “I really took the initiative in that, trying to build confidence in it and making sure it’s slow enough. I feel like it is. I feel like it is a pitch I’m going to use.”

His adaptation of the slider comes from his desire to add a breaking ball to his mix. He doesn’t throw a curve ball. He had been using various grips on his cutter as his breaking ball – and everything he threw was 90 mph or harder.

“Instead of trying to blend my cutter into two pitches, I want to have a true slider,” Wilson said. “And it’s completely different from my cutter now. It’s kind of refreshing not trying to manipulate that pitch.”

He said in the past he would use different grips on the cutter, one to get sinking action, another to get horizontal movement.

“It was just too hard,” he said. “The separation from fastball to cutter isn’t enough to get hitters out front. The speed change isn’t there.”

The slider, he said, is slower and with a bigger break than his cutter. So, if things progress this spring as he expects, he will have two off-speed pitches (slider and change) and two different high-velocity pitches (four-seamer and cutter).

But make no mistake, Wilson hasn’t forgotten that his bread is still best buttered with well-placed, high-90s heat.

“There was never a thought to change anything with the fastball,” he said. “I will still use that and I will still use the cutter. I just need to separate the usage a little bit. I need to get hitters out front (off balance), really, and I think the change-up and slider will help with that.”

Certainly, left-handed hitters won’t feel nearly as comfortable in the box if he is able to sweep a slider across their front shoulder (think Andrew Miller). Nor will right-handers be as free to hunt his 96 mph fastball if he can show them a legitimate off-speed pitch.

It could be a valuable transformation for both Wilson and the Tigers’ bullpen.

Twitter @cmccosky