We don’t hear Adam Wilk‘s name a lot in discussions of the Tigers fifth starter spot (unless I’m hearing my own voice). Scouts, to be blunt, don’t seem to like him much. For a review of what Wilk does and does not do and what those aforementioned scouts think of him, I’ll refer you to our very own James R. Chipman. He doesn’t throw hard, but he throws five different pitches including a cutter which should make him more than a left-on-left pitcher. He is 23 years old and has put up sparkling numbers at every stop, while being rushed [only 3 starts at AA], and every step of the way doubters have expected him to flop – but it hasn’t happened. Prior to 2011 he was expected to hit the wall in Toledo, having dominated in Toledo those same doubters are expecting him to hit the wall in the Majors. And if you expect him to implode, why even give him the chance? The expectation seems to be that for Wilk and other pitchers like him, as they climb the ladder better hitters will hit their down-the-middle pitches harder and harder. That, in turn, would force them to nibble the edges instead of attacking (causing Ks to fall and walks to rise). Statistically speaking, this ultra-low walk model with league-average BABIP and HR/FB should be unsustainable. One of the two will give, either he’ll start walking people or they’ll start clobbering him.
I wanted to look at some comparables for Wilk to see if that was likely to happen, or if it’s all been blown out of proportion.
I had planned to do a detailed statistical analysis of all the many, many minor league pitchers that were like Adam Wilk and what they managed to accomplish when given a callup. But… as it turns out, pitchers like Wilk are rare indeed. Of course you all know that Adam Wilk has good command, but that doesn’t go far enough: his command is extraordinary and that command is his one and only strength. Looking at AAA data from 2006 to 2010 to find comparables for Wilk what I was looking for were pitchers young enough to be considered prospects (I drew the line at 25) since Wilk was only 23 in Toledo last year who walked almost nobody (my walk rate cutoff was approximately 4% of batters faced) while striking out a middling number – not blowing everybody away but not Bonining it up there either. I don’t get a big sample to do statistical analysis of, what I get is case studies.
I’d love to look at older players with more of a major league track record – pitchers like Mark Buerhle, Dave Bush and Andy Sonnanstine, but my data only goes back to 2006. So here are the guys that pitched like Wilk in AAA in alphabetical order:
Josh Banks: R, 24 in AAA in 2007 – 1.3 BB/9, 5.4 K/9, 1.17 HR/9, .302 BABIP, 4.63 ERA (4.38 ERA, 1.7 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2007-2010 – 3.17 BB/9, 4.15 K/9, 1.5 HR/9, .300 BABIP, 5.66 ERA (starting & relief)
Nick Blackburn: R, 25 in AAA in 2007 – 1.0 BB/9, 4.6 K/9, 0.57 HR/9, .251 BABIP, 2.11 ERA (3.64 ERA, 2.0 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2007-2011 – 2.2 BB/9, 4.33 K/9, 1.18 HR/9, .308 BABIP, 4.50 ERA (starting)
Doug Fister: R, 25 in AAA in 2009 – 0.93 BB/9, 6.07 K/9, 0.85 HR/9, .346 BABIP, 3.81 ERA (4.38 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2009-2011 – 1.69 BB/9, 5.53 K/9, 0.7 HR/9, .284 BABIP, 3.49 ERA (starting)
Justin Germano: R, 23 in AAA in 2006 – 1.4 BB/9, 5.3 K/9, 0.8 HR/9, .302 BABIP, 3.48 ERA (3.81 ERA, 1.6 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2004, 2006-2008, 2010-2011 – 2.95 BB/9, 5.44 K/9, 1.14 HR/9, .288 BABIP, 5.02 ERA (starting & relief)
Bobby Livingston: L, 24 in AAA in 2007 – 1.47 BB/9, 5.43 K/9, 0.6 HR/9, .330 BABIP, 3.80 ERA (3.99 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2006-2007 – 2.05 BB/9, 4.4 K/9, 1.47 HR/9, .338 BABIP, 6.31 ERA (mostly starting)
Matt Maloney: L, 25 in AAA in 2009 – 1.51 BB/9, 7.87 K/9, 0.69 HR/9, .311 BABIP, 3.08 ERA (3.27 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2009-2011 – 1.91 BB/9, 6.08 K/9, 2.03 HR/9, .314 BABIP, 5.40 ERA (starting & relief)
Daniel McCutchen: R, 25 in AAA in 2008 – 1.35 BB/9, 7.55 K/9, 1.7 HR/9, .290 BABIP, 4.10 ERA (3.24 ERA, 2.0 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2009-2011 – 3.43 BB/9, 4.96 K/9, 1.24 HR/9, .291 BABIP, 4.67 ERA (mostly in relief)
Kevin Slowey: R, 23 in AAA in 2007 – 1.21 BB/9, 7.20 K/9, 0.27 HR/9, .271 BABIP, 1.89 ERA (2.13 ERA, 1.3 BB/9 in minors overall)
… in the majors 2007-2011 – 1.42 BB/9, 6.61 K/9, 1.42 HR/9, .310 BABIP, 4.66 ERA (mostly starting)
Of Tigers prospects, the closest to this tier would be Virgil Vasquez and Eddie Bonine – but both progressed too slowly through the minors to fit, not putting up these control numbers until age 27.
now compare those numbers to Wilk’s:
in AAA in 2011 – 1.23 BB/9, 6.66 K/9, 1.31 HR/9, .287 BABIP, 3.24 ERA (2.62 ERA, 1.2 ERA in minors overall)
As a minor leaguer, only Kevin Slowey tops Wilk. While these guys are comparable to Wilk in one respect, many simply didn’t have the overall minor league success that he did. While Fister walked very few batters in AAA, he walked a lot more at lower levels of the minors.
Wilk in MLB in 2011 – 2.03 BB/9, 6.75 K/9, 2.03 HR/9, .268 BABIP, 5.40 ERA (in relief)
Those major league numbers are, of course, a very limited sample. Wilk took the mound only 5 times in long relief during a period when desperate Tigers management was trying just about anything to fix a chronic bullpen problem. He gave up 3 homers in 13 1/3 innings and got sent back down. Maybe that is a sign. Maybe he’ll be like Matt Maloney, who has been pretty good in the minors (though he was older for each level than Wilk) and who just hasn’t seemed able to keep the ball in the yard in Cincinnati. With the exception of Fister, all of these guys have seen a rise in their HR rates (McCutchen doesn’t count, he gave up a lot of bombs in the minors too) – but some of that is normal for any pitcher making the transition. The sample is small, but it does look like these ultra-low-walk guys might be prone to a larger than normal jump in dingers. What isn’t normal is the Maloney-like 2 home runs per game, but he’s the only one on that extreme end. I don’t think expecting 1.4 HR/9 from Wilk would be at all unfair, despite the fact that he gave up very few home runs prior to 2011.
But.. It doesn’t look like huge rises in BABIP are the rule, except in cases where the pitcher’s AAA BABIP was so absurdly low as to predict a normal regression to the mean. It’s normal for pitchers’ BABIP numbers to rise by a good 15 points when making the transition from AAA to the majors (just like all their other numbers get worse). Since some of that is guys like Blackburn or Slowey with very low AAA BABIPs that got their cup of coffee for that reason alone (few pitchers with Fister BABIPs get promoted, ever) I would say that this ultra-low-walk sample fits right in there. The only guy with a very high MLB BABIP is Livingston, and he was getting hit hard all along. From AAA to MLB, his rise in BABIP was still fairly small, rather than being unable to adjust it looks like he simply lacked the league-average-BABIP tool and once balls started flying out of the yard it became unsustainable. For a guy like Wilk with a normal BABIP, it would be fair to expect only a slight rise as well and without an excessive number of baserunners that 1.4 HR/9 might well be sustainable.
All pitchers tend to see a bit of a drop in Ks and a bit of a rise in BBs as they transition, but to varying degrees. This is where the wheat is separated from the chaff – in walks and strikeouts – Banks, Germano and McCutchen saw big rises in walks, with Banks and McCutchen also missing a lot fewer bats. In the MLB they have not achieved – becoming the type of AAAA spot-starter/back-end-reliever that everyone has Wilk pegged for. Maloney, as mentioned earlier, seems to be able to do everything but keep the ball in the yard and that has thus far defined his short career. Livingston got battered in 2007, then got hurt in 2008 and hasn’t been as effective in the minors ever since. Fister got better from the minors to the bigs – something which does happen (see Polanco, Placido) on occasion. It would appear that in 2009 he ‘figured it out’ and would have put up Slowey-like numbers if not for bad luck on balls in play.
That leaves us with two remaining comps: Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey, both Twins, both former top-100 prospects. They aren’t perfect comps – both are right-handed and Slowey got significantly more strikeouts in the minors while Blackburn got fewer. Both pitched relatively poorly last year as part of the overall Twins collapse, but both have been pretty solid overall: Blackburn has put up 6.6 WAR over the past 4 years, Slowey 7.0. That is 4th or 5th starter level production, but it’s not bad 4th or 5th starter production – compared to 2010 Bonderman or 2011 Penny – and it’s about bit as good as what we have been getting (and are likely to get in the future) from Rick Porcello.
It’s a bit of a stretch to hope that Wilk could be like Fister (as it would have been a stretch to hope that Fister could be like Fister), but not so much of a stretch to hope that he could be like Blackburn & Slowey. Of course there’s no guarantee that this would happen – but I’m still in favor of giving him the 5th spot for the first two months (provided he doesn’t look out of sync in Spring Training) while Smyly and Turner get innings in in Toledo rather than throwing either of those two into the fire. Wilk had a full season in AAA and he proved everything that a man can prove – even striking out righties. After 10 starts or so, we should have a good idea whether Wilk looks like an innings-eater like Blackburn/Slowey (or better yet, Mark Buerhle) or a BP-tosser like Maloney or a thoroughly intimidated nibbler like Germano, McCutchen & Banks.