Justin Wilson didn’t produce for the Cubs in 2017. But the team is confident things will be different this season.
When the Chicago Cubs acquired left-handed reliever Justin Wilson from the Detroit Tigers last July, nobody questioned the deal. It was clear Chicago thought they were getting one of the better lefty power pitchers in baseball, and one that could soften the blow of then-closer Wade Davis potentially leaving in free agency at the end of the year.
However, things didn’t quite pan out the way the Cubs intended, as Wilson found himself sitting on the bench come playoff time.
Justin Wilson’s struggles weren’t hard to diagnose; he threw 17.2 innings for the Cubs last season and issued 19 walks.
His strikeouts per nine innings was still a solid 12.7 percent, but with all the walks, Wilson finished his 2017 Cubs season with a 5.09 ERA, a far cry from his stellar first half with the Tigers.
Wilson’s struggles eventually ended with him only pitching 2/3 of an inning in the NLDS and being left off the NLCS roster entirely.
Wilson struggled the moment he arrived in Chicago, never truly finding his comfort zone on the mound for the Cubs. But his makeup and natural stuff still give the Cubs hope he can be a valuable piece to their bullpen.
In Detroit, Wilson threw for 40.1 innings, striking out 55 batters and registering a 2.68 ERA with 13 saves. If he can give the Cubs something even remotely close to this, he’s a strength in the Cubs bullpen.
The Athletic Cubs beat writer Sahadev Sharma was a guest on Fangraph’s Effectively Wild podcast previewing the 2018 Cubs season and was asked about Wilson’s dismal 2017 performance. Sharma says that sources within the Cubs organization felt their onboarding process wasn’t doing enough to make new players, particularly pitchers, get comfortable in Chicago. (Listen to the full podcast here.)
“From talking with Cubs people, and this is on the record, they felt that one of their issues that they’re trying to rectify, and that they believe they’re in the process of rectifying is on-boarding. So especially in the middle of a season, with pitchers, they feel that what can happen is if you’re not comfortable, and you’re not comfortable in a situation, and then you go out and have a bad outing, and then you go out and have another bad outing, that just leads to more and more issues, and then you’re not comfortable off the field. And now suddenly, you’re not comfortable on the field.”
Sharma also said that the issues with Wilson and other starters like Adam Warren, who was terrible during his short time with the Cubs but found his stride once again when returning to the Yankees, led to the team letting go of former pitching coach Chris Bosio.
“[The Cubs] get a lot of credit for their ability to unearth pitchers, but that is something they felt frustrated with and I think Justin Wilson kinda brought things to a head. I think that is apart of the reason Chris Bosio left, it’s not one single reason, but that was one of them. Not everyone was on the same page on every subject, and they don’t want that to happen again in the future.”
It’s also important to point out that Wilson had less than two months to get acclimated with the Cubs, which translated to 17.2 innings over 23 games in a Cubs uniform. Wilson never truly found his footing. While a positional player knows even if he goes through a bad week, he’ll have another chance to get out of his funk, pitchers don’t always know when their next opportunity will come.
If pitchers struggle initially, like Wilson did with the Cubs, there isn’t a guarantee they’ll get another chance to work through those problems. It could take a few days before a reliever sees live-game action again, and for a player like Wilson who hadn’t adjusted quite yet, it can amplify problems on and off the field.
But with new pitching coach Jim Hickey joining the staff and a more concerted effort by the Cubs organization to make players feel comfortable on the north side of Chicago, the hope is this won’t be an issue going forward.
As for Justin Wilson, expect the 30-year-old reliever to bounce back in a big way for the Cubs in 2018. If he does revert back to his numbers with the Tigers in 2017, the Cubs bullpen could easily become one of the best group of relievers the league has to offer.