Brian Wilson might be the most important part of the Dodgers puzzle from this point on, and he’s fortunately heavily improved from his early season struggles. Statistically, the Dodgers have one of the top offenses to pair along with one of the best pitching staffs. One of the major weaknesses on the team all season long has been a struggling bullpen which only has two pitchers in Kenley Jansen and J.P. Howell that have been good to great all season. The rest of the bullpen has pitchers who have had some good stretches but have mixed it in with failure more often then not (I’m looking at you, Chris Perez). Each pitcher who has had some success isn’t someone you would necessarily plug in as a set up man; Brandon League has had a nice bounce back season but peripherals and splits suggest he can’t be counted on in high leverage situations, Paco Rodriguez showed great return to form suggesting he should have been called up earlier, but with his recent injury his timetable to return is unknown and will take quick convincing to be in high leverage situations, and Carlos Frias showed great stuff but will take a lot more convincing to be used in tight situations. Which leaves us with Brian Wilson as the one and only reliever to pair with J.P. Howell and Kenley Jansen to be used in tight and close situations. Should we be scared? Not as much as we think.
The reason Brian Wilson is going to be so important is not just for the sake of having 2 great set up men to pair with a closer. Due to the injuries to Paco Rodriguez and Paul Maholm, J.P. Howell is the only lefty in the bullpen and most of the bullpen depth in Triple A is right handed. This leaves for some tricky match ups late in the game. Now, instead of being able to use Paco in the 6th or 7th inning as a LOOGY, Don Mattingly might have to used J.P. Howell earlier then intended, leaving Brian Wilson to tackle the 8th inning all by himself. This is why his success is going to be so vital to the team; the Dodgers absolutely need for Brian Wilson to be dependable down the stretch to be able to use J.P. Howell in better match ups and to not lose games in the 8th inning.
If you are this far into this, you might be scared for the rest of the Dodgers season when remembering the beginning of the year and how you would cringe every time Brian Wilson came into the game. That’s fair criticism for Wilson, who started out the season poorly. From the start of the season until June 1st* (18.2 innings pitched), Brian Wilson had a 6.75 ERA, 5.92 FIP, 5.11 xFIP, 10.61 K/9, 7.71 BB/9, and a 1.45 HR/9. That’s a lot of numbers to basically summarize by saying: He sucked. Wilson was one of the worst relievers in the entire game, and was still being used in high leverage situations which caused the Dodgers to take themselves out of many games. Wilson was magnificent last season and it got him a big salary for 2014-2015, and it was looking like a huge bust on the Dodgers end. Then, Wilson somehow quietly turned his season around. From June 1st until the current date, Wilson has been the pitcher the Dodgers thought they were getting when they signed him and good enough to justify him being a set up man.
*Any time someone uses arbitrary endpoints, readers can (as they should) be suspicious as to why the dates were chosen. Their is no biased reason as to why I chose those dates, it was more about splitting up April-July into two halves of two months each, more or less.
From June 1st until now (16 innings pitched), Wilson has a 2.81 ERA, 2.20 FIP, 3.38 xFIP, 11.81 K/9, 5.06 BB/9, and a 0.00 HR/9. That is improving all across the board. He’s pitching better and it’s not just attributed to luck, everything about it is better. The one area Wilson could really use improving on is in walking less batters, but for now it is just great to see Wilson’s numbers heading into the right directions. Of course, 16 innings pitched isn’t a large sample size but over two months it has seemed as if Wilson is improving and him being an effective set up man gives the Dodgers a 3 headed monster good enough to close out high leverage situations down the stretch and hopefully in the playoffs.
What is unclear in the data is why this change has occurred. His BABIP (batting average of balls in play) actually rose from .352 to .375 in the two different endpoints, suggesting luck and/or batted ball doesn’t have much to do with it. His velocity has not changed drastically at all from the two different time periods. His line drive rate rose, his ground ball percentage decreased, and now I’m close to just contradicting everything I just wrote. It’s entirely possible something just clicked with Wilson and he gained better command of his arsenal. He had a weird 2013 where he came in late in the season and missed the traditional spring training after surgery and rehab. Perhaps it made his schedule more complex and the 2014 spring training and beginning of season felt odd and unfamiliar, to the point that he was not in the form he typically is in the regular season. This is the better scenario, as it suggests that now Wilson is in a place where he feels comfortable and can now go the rest of the season being effective.