Wilson looking to vary repertoire at camp

Wilson looking to vary repertoire at camp

DETROIT -- Justin Wilson was traded in back-to-back offseasons on his way from the Pirates to the Yankees to the Tigers. Another winter of Hot Stove rumors wasn't going to bother him.

"I was somewhat used to it," Wilson said at TigerFest earlier this month.

It's what Wilson did on the field, how he pitched, that ate at him. And whether his long-term future is in Detroit or elsewhere, he wants to get better.

Wilson has never really been a traditional lefty reliever, leveraged against left-handed hitters but vulnerable to righties. The 29-year-old has held righties to a lower batting average and OPS than he allowed to lefties in each of the past three seasons. Only in his rookie year did he have a traditional lefty-righty split.

Even so, while Wilson wasn't as stingy against hitters from the left side, he was still relatively effective. His 2016 season changed that. He allowed a .308 batting average to left-handed hitters this past year, 55 points higher than in any of his other full seasons. His .772 OPS allowed to lefties was a career high by 91 points.

"The splits were horrible," Wilson said. "Lefties, whatever they hit, it shouldn't happen. But I think the season as a whole, I would go on a good little run and then something would blow up in my face -- maybe half bad luck and half myself not making the adjustments I needed to.

"As a team, not going to the playoffs is a disappointment, especially for the talent we have. I think if I pitch better down the stretch, we have a chance. I'm not saying it changes a whole lot, but that's how I felt coming into the offseason."

Wilson's first career save

Wilson went into the offseason looking to change how he pitched to hitters. He goes into Spring Training looking to change his pitches. He has been the same style of pitcher throughout his big league career, a fastball-cutter southpaw with an occasional offspeed pitch. The fastball and cutter accounted for at least 773 of his 996 pitches in 2016, according to Statcast™.

There was no velocity drop to raise alarms. For that matter, there wasn't much velocity difference in anything Wilson threw. His fastball averaged better than 95 mph, his cutter just under 91 mph.

"Part of it is my repertoire," Wilson said. "Everything's hard, my breaking ball is hard, and that's been a goal this offseason to get some separation there, mainly a true slider rather than a cutter that's trying to be a slider, or a bad curveball. I've had a changeup in the past, probably only used it about 10 times over the last four years, but it's a pitch that I think I need to use at this point, because I'm facing these hitters more, and I need some separation with velocity."

Left-handed hitters were not flummoxed. According to Statcast™, they hit for just under a .500 BABIP (12-for-26) against fastballs at 95 mph or harder, though just three hits for extra bases.

"I think you ask a lot of hitters, their mental scouting report on me is my fastball gets on hitters, and not having the separation on the breaking ball, I think, is easier for them to adjust. If throwing my fastball at 95 and my breaking ball only at 91 or 90 really doesn't play a whole lot for misses or softly-hit ground balls. So that's where I'm trying to make my adjustment."

Spring Training is where he wants to try it.

"I'm going in there, and my whole goal is to be a junk pitcher to really get confident in [those offspeed pitches] and use them," he said.

If he can gain that confidence, and regain that stinginess, the upside is lofty. Wilson watched the 2016 postseason like so many others, marveling as former Yankees teammate Andrew Miller. He knows the potential for a lefty who can dominate hitters from either side of the plate.

Wilson doesn't have anywhere near the wipeout slider Miller boasts, or any singularly dominant pitch. If he can improve his mix, though, he can get closer to that type of versatile role.

"He's changing the game," Wilson said.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.