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What the loss of Brian Wilson would mean

April 15, 2012

It was reported Saturday that Giants closer Brian Wilson has structural damage in his elbow, likely needing season-ending surgery to repair it. The news may not shock the Giants slash reader. After all, Wilson entered the season with elbow concerns that dated back to July of 2011, when he was sidelined with what the Giants called “elbow inflammation.” He came back mid-September, but was not the same, as the following velocity chart will show.

It’s easier to read, so open it in a new tab. NOW. Each gray vertical line represents an appearance for Wilson. As you can see, the appearances are sorted by year on the horizontal axis. The vertical range of the gray lines represent the range of velocities (in mph) on Wilson’s fastball in that appearance; the green dot represents the average velocity for that appearance. Standalone green dots are either appearances in which Wilson threw one pitch or he threw multiple pitches all at the same velocity. For most of his career, Wilson hit 95 mph or above with his fastball. That fell slightly last year, possibly from age or an oblique injury he suffered at the beginning of the year. After the elbow troubles in July, his velocity dipped to the low 90s. There isn’t much data here, but a guy named Jeff demonstrated that a pitcher’s fastball velocity after just three starts back from the DL is a good predictor of his fastball velocity for the rest of the season.

We have two two-start samples in Wilson’s case: the two green dots at the end of 2011 and the two appearances in 2012. But I’m comfortable making the judgement that Wilson’s fastball is not going to get back up to 95 mph because the two samples are linked by the same injury (or at least two injuries to the same body part).

Wilson enters his final year of arbitration next year, meaning the Giants’ front office and his agent each submit an offer sheet outlining how much they think he should be paid. Given his injury history, the Giants will probably submit a smaller offer than his talent would warrant. If the two sides reach and impasse, an arbiter (like “Judge” Judy, only less condescending) will pick between the two offer sheets, and the Giants would stand a good chance of winning. The Giants could also just release him if they are comfortable with the state of the bullpen. With that and also the rest of the season in mind, let’s evaluate the bullpen top-to-bottom.

The personnel and their roles, before Wilson’s injury:
Brian Wilson, closer
Sergio Romo, set-up man
Javier Lopez, LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY, a.k.a. lefty specialist)
Jeremy Affeldt, LOOGY who can go against righties, too, if needed
Santiago Casilla, flamethrower with a wild streak
Guillermo Mota, long (multiple-innings) reliever
Dan Otero, regular guy
Clay Hensley, regular guy slash junkballer
Dan Runzler (on DL), lefty flamethrower with a wilder streak
Heath Hembree (in minors), closer of the future as regarded by many

With Wilson, everyone had a clearly defined role. Despite my affection for statistics, I don’t think it’s possible to just shuffle people around and expect their production to be the same. The comfort that comes with stability has to be accounted for. It might be possible for Romo to be an effective closer, but he is so unfathomably good in the eighth (though he’s not a cut-and-dry eighth-inning guy by any means) that it’s hard to tinker with that success. Since Wilson’s injury necessitates some tinkering, though, I think Casilla would be the best option currently on the roster. He certainly throws the hardest out of anyone in the bullpen. Casilla’s high walk rate is concerning, to be sure, but if he moved to closer than Dan Otero could slide in as the guy who pitches in the seventh inning sometimes.

If Casilla doesn’t rev your engine, then why not Hembree? Hembree, currently in Triple-A Fresno, has long been regarded as Wilson’s future replacement. He has a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a good slider. Just look at him do unmentionable things to Single-A hitters last year.

With Hembree almost fully groomed—and I don’t mean scissors-in-the-shower grooming, you preverts, though Wilson did bring an emphasis on certain kinds of hair to the closer position that may live beyond him—for the job, Wilson’s loss doesn’t hurt the Giants’ chances much. Casilla, then possibly Romo, will get a chance to claim the job first. That should give Hembree enough time to gain experience against Triple-A bats. If they falter, he will probably be called up for an audition. If they are solid, he will come up this season anyway, at the very least as a September call-up.

His twitter bio drops a reference to Romans 8:31. Rudely, it doesn’t just transcribe the verse, making the internetter Google it to find out what the passage says.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Not I, Heath. Not I.

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