Tom Wilhelmsen Thrives With Fastball

Tom Wilhelmsen converted his seventh save of the season Monday night against the Orioles, tossing a scoreless ninth inning. The appearance marked his 16th straight without allowing an earned run, a span encompassing 19.2 innings pitched.

Wilhelmsen brandishes a three-pitch arsenal, using a curve and change along with his fastball. But it’s the fastball — averaging 95.8 MPH, 14th fastest among relievers — that defines his success.

Wilhelmsen is striking out 10.9 batters per nine innings this year. In order to get to two strike counts, Wilhelmsen has been exceptional at generating strikes without allowing the batter to put the ball in the play — not just swinging strikes, but also called strikes and foul balls. His fastball comprises over two-thirds of his pitches, and he’s able to use it to great effect to get to two-strike counts. Although he only generates 7.9% swinging strikes in zero or one-strike counts (still great for a fastball), Wilhelmsen is able to keep the ball out of play while racking up strikes:

Over 50% of his fastballs with less than two strikes have gone for strikes not in play — 24% called strikes, 20% fouls, and 8% swinging strikes. This is what allows Wilhelmsen to get to so many two strike counts, and that’s where his fastball gets especially dangerous:

In 74 fastballs thrown in two-strike counts, Wilhelmsen has drawn just as many swinging strikes (18) as he’s thrown balls, an absurd 25.7% rate. He’s painted another three for called strikes, and he’s given up just two hits next to 14 outs in play. Particularly since Wilhelmsen’s scoreless streak has started, it’s not as if hitters are chasing out of the zone, either:

Only one of these swinging strikes is clearly out of the zone, and then only by about six inches.

Wilhelmsen, known simply as “Bartender” to some, is now beyond just a guy with a great story who made it to the major leagues. His fastball is one of the best in the game today and behind it, Wilhelmsen is becoming one of the game’s elite relievers.

Graphics made with Tableau Public. PITCHf/x data from joelefkowitz.com.




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24 Responses to “Tom Wilhelmsen Thrives With Fastball”

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  1. AL Eastbound says:

    Great story for sure.

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    • Justin says:

      He was a former Brewers prospect that quit baseball to smoke pot and drink. He got bored of it after a few years and finally picked up a baseball, fortunately for him he still could throw hard. It’s not a “great” story.

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      • Dale says:

        u mad?

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      • TIF says:

        Overcoming personal demons is not a great story? Do you think Josh Hamilton’s professed continued temptations that he has to fight aren’t inspiring?

        Wilhelmsen’s demons might not be as impressive as Hamilton’s, but being able to stand up, say “I’m done with this”, and get your life back in order upon the path of greatness is admirable. Not everybody can do that. In fact, millions every year die because they can’t.

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  2. Snowblind says:

    But it’s that curveball – Last Call – that is just straight-up unhittable.

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    • Balthazar says:

      Agreed. Jack, I appreciate your focus here on Wilhelmsen’s fastball, since as you show he’s exceptionally effective with it in the zone, because despite that, I tend to focus on his curve. The pitch is not only all but unhitable but he _routinely_ throws it for a strike. He gets the called strike so often with that, and it’s a reliable groundball pitch when he needs that. He’s a terrific reliever because his fastball’s so good, but he’s a great closer because the curve will unzip you if you _don’t_ swing at the fastball. Two plus offerings and a show-me means he can attack the zone every pitch. Thus far, he’s the cool customer too with men on base also, doesn’t seem fazed in the least, just gets the next out. Wilhelmsen has been my favorite Mariner so far this year: somebody here (beyond Felix) wants to win . . . .

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  3. DD says:

    Wait, he used to be a bartender? I hadn’t heard that anywhere before…

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    • philosofool says:

      Addiction issues forced him to retiree. He tended bar in his home town of Tucson for five years after that. Then he auditioned for the Tucson Toros, where the M’s discovered him throw 94 in independent league ball.

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      • Stuart says:

        Addiction issues? The most I heard was that he got in trouble for marijuana a couple times and he quit baseball because he didn’t care enough. He left baseball so he could hike mountains and travel. Where did you see anything different? Sounds like listless young man syndrom rather than a drug abuse disease.

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      • wily mo says:

        yeah guys… “having smoked pot in your life” doesn’t make you a drug addict, any more than having been to a bar makes you an alcoholic. i like both wilhelmsen and josh hamilton but they really have little in common beyond leaving the game for a few years and then making successful comebacks. granted, that -is- a thing they have in common. but there’s gradations and distinctions to be made here.

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      • wily mo says:

        also DD was being sarcastic

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      • DD says:

        Thank you, wily mo.

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  4. antoine says:

    Damn that Rotographs chat that told me last month not to drop Scott Downs for this guy!

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  5. Monroe says:

    M’s gotta trade him asap and not make the mistake they made with Aardsma and League.

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    • Basebull says:

      Not even comparable situations. Both were getting expensive through arbitration and had a couple years before hitting FA. Wilhelmsen is cheap and under team control for most of this decade. Z should certainly listen, since trading relievers for hitters is good policy, but the return should be significant. This isn’t a rental.

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  6. Bookbook says:

    Aardsma and League were getting expensive when triggers were not pulled. The greater risk here is in trading away a cost-controlled asset for pieces as valuable as, say, Francisco Martinez and Chance Ruffin.

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  7. philosofool says:

    I suspect that the success of his fastball is a synergy thing. His curve ball is really good too; he can throw it for strikes and it also draws whiffs. If he has a little deception with the curve, the pair are really going to bust hitters’ timing. What do you do when you’re eithr getting a fastball at 96 or a curve at 79 and you have two strikes? Swing in front of the curve or behind the heat.

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  8. duworkson says:

    Might have the best curveball in all of baseball. Then you add that to his fastball the hitters just look silly ala Tecmo Baseball.

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  9. Another Dale says:

    I gotta know: who was swinging and fouling off a pitch at their eyeball-level? Belliard and Guerrero have retired, right?

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  10. maqman says:

    He got a tryout in spring training because Jack Z drafted him when with the Brewers and Jack took his call. Another factor is his height of 6’6″ which means his release point is closer to the plate than most which makes it appear 1 or 2 mph faster than it actually is. Due to his time away from the game his arm is as fresh as a guy a few years younger. He is The Bartender, may his tip glass runeth over.

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  11. Rippers says:

    Tom ‘Bartender’ Wilhelmsen is so much better than Brandon ‘Bush’ League!

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  12. Johnhavok says:

    Bartenders turned closers are the new market inefficiency.

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