To look at the scorebook, it would seem like just another strikeout.
In his one inning of work in Sunday’s Cactus League game against the San Diego Padres, Tom Wilhelmsen ended the third inning with a swinging strikeout of Chase Headley.
But it was something more; something that could pay benefits for Wilhelmsen and the Seattle Mariners this season: a nice battle between the Mariners’ closer and the third baseman who was fifth in National League MVP voting last season.
The switch-hitting Headley, who batted .286 with 31 homers and 115 RBI last season, fell behind in the count 0-2 after taking a fastball for a strike and fouling off a change-up.
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Wilhelmsen tried to put him away with two 94 mph fastballs that were out of the strike zone just enough that Headley wouldn’t swing at them.
So with a 2-2 count, would
Wilhelmsen fire another one of his mid-to-high-90s four-seam fastballs at Headley? Or would he buckle Headley’s knees with a nasty overhand curveball?
Neither. Wilhelmsen went with his third-best pitch, a wicked, 88 mph change-up that sank and ran away from a helpless Headley, who waved at the pitch for strike three.
Wilhelmsen put his head down and walked back to the dugout. But Headley stood there for a moment and stared out at the mound and shook his head as if to say, “What the heck was that?”
When told a day later, Wilhelmsen replied, “I didn’t know that. That’s good.”
That’s good for the Mariners, but it’s very bad for hitters.
It’s not as if Wilhelmsen isn’t tough to hit already. According to Fangraphs, his fastball averaged 96.2 mph last season and reached triple digits with plenty of movement. His curveball is more than 18 mph slower, averaging 78.1 mph with an amazing amount of break. He struck out 87 hitters in 79 innings.
Most closers usually rely on two pitches, so why the need for a third?
“It’s something that will disrupt hitters,” Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. “That third pitch is a great weapon against elite hitters, who have the ability to pick up the rotation of your pitches so early. You use it against someone who is having a great at-bat against you fouling off tough pitches. You show them something different. It gives them one more thing to think about.”
It’s what Wilhelmsen used against Headley. And he’ll use it this season – maybe a lot.
“I’d like to use it more than I did last year,” Wilhelmsen said. “I think it’s going to be a situational pitch. We’ll see how it develops and goes from there.”
The development of his change-up has been ongoing. He used it 4.7 percent of the time last season, but that’s largely because he couldn’t find any predictability with the pitch.
“It’s been his lowest-rated pitch,” Willis said. “It’s taken him a while. He’s had to experiment with grips. There’s been times where the speed has been good, but he didn’t get action with it. Or the speed is good and it’s cutting one pitch and sinking the next. You need to find consistent movement to know what it’s going to do.”
The most recent grip – the “circle grip” – seems to have given him that.
Wilhelmsen starts with the ball buried in his palm and the index finger tucked onto his thumb forming a circle. But he’s adjusted it slightly based a little on how teammate Felix Hernandez grips his change-up.
“I lowered my index finger on the ball to help get under it and maybe slice it that way,” Wilhelmsen said. “And I’m dragging my foot on my delivery a little bit to get extended and stay back.”
Those changes have given Wilhelmsen a change-up that – when executed properly – is very similar to Hernandez’s dominating one.
It’s got a high velocity of around 87-89 mph and has the same sinking motion that will run away from left-handed hitters.
“That’s the action I’m going for,” Wilhelmsen said. “Previously when I threw it, it was kind of coming in to lefties, which is in their swing pattern.”
With Wilhelmsen’s curveball also coming in on left-handed hitters, the change-up will offer a pitch moving down and away. It could be vital for getting soft ground balls as well as sinking called strikes.
“When you throw with the velocity that Tommy throws with and you maintain that arm speed, it’s just a pitch that hitters don’t recognize,” Willis said.
Wilhelmsen is still going to use the fastball and curveball primarily. But this can only make him more effective.
“It’s going to be a great weapon for him,” Willis said. “He’s going to get a lot of outs with it. It’s going to allow him be more efficient.”