Fact or Fiction examines the performance of a player, good or bad, and determines whether he'll continue his success this season or if he has just been flukey-good. Today's Fact or Fiction looks at Seattle Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen.
The last place Seattle Mariners have had very little to feel positive about this season, but one of the most unlikely surprises has been the emergence of 28 year-old righthanded reliever Tom Wilhelmsen. Wilhelmsen was installed as Seattle's closer back in early June after a string of bad outings by incumbent ninth-inning man and 2011 All Star Brandon League
, but he has retained the role and League has since been traded to the Dodgers.
Prior to his move to the closer role, Wilhelmsen was best known for his unusual path to the big leagues, which began as a 7th-round pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft. While in the Brewers farm system in 2003, Wilhelmsen was suspended for marijuana use and chose to leave professional baseball completely. He backpacked through Europe and eventually ended up working as a bartender in his hometown of Tucson
before attempting a return to baseball in 2009. He was signed by the Mariners and worked mainly as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, finishing the 2010 season for High-A Clinton.
Amazingly, Tom made the Mariners bullpen out of spring training in 2011, though he was demoted after just a month with the club. While he failed to dominate during his most legitimate minor league test (60 2/3 innings, mainly as a starter, for Double-A Jackson in 2011) Wilhelmsen showed good velocity and, at times, excellent command. This performance led to another promotion to the Mariners bullpen, and he mostly impressed as a middle reliever and sometimes setup man. He finished the season with a 2-0 record, a 3.31 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, 30 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings, and 13 walks, good for a 2.31 strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ratio.
This performance essentially locked him in as a part of the Mariners bullpen in 2012, though his unconventional minor league pedigree (including a long absence during his prime years) still left question marks regarding his overall potential and talent ceiling.
What wasn't questioned much, however, was his arm. Wilhelmsen worked primarily as a starter in the minor leagues, and his fastball velocity sat mainly around 90 to 94 miles per hour (mph). He paired this with an above-average curveball that came in at 75 to 80 mph and a much less impressive slider (around 85 mph). Along with a four-seam fastball, Tom also works with a two-seam (cut) fastball, but even with these he generally lacked the repertoire to really excel in a pitching rotation.
A move to the bullpen with the Mariners significantly changed Wilhelmsen's approach and led to much better results. As is typically the case with major league pitchers, working from the bullpen allowed Wilhelmsen to dial up his fastball, and as a reliever his velocity numbers are typically 95 to 100 mph, with an average of 96.2. His slower curveball gives him a solid off-speed offering, and as a member of the bullpen he has given up his slider in favor of a rarely-used changeup.
As basically a fastball/curveball reliever, Wilhelmsen has increased his strikeout rates dramatically from the numbers he had a Double-A in 2011, going from 5.9 K/9 with Franklin in 2011 to 9.3 K/9 with the Mariners in 2011 and 2012, including a 9.8 K/9 mark in 2012. His walk rates and number of hits per nine innings (H/9) are essentially the same from 2011 to 2012, but his increased strikeout rates have made him exceptional and sometimes dominant as Seattle's closer this year.
Wilhelmsen's career path somewhat mirrors that of another late-blooming righthander: Brewers reliever John Axford
, who emerged in 2011 as one of the league's best closers but has struggled badly in 2012. But unlike Axford, Wilhelmsen has never really struggled with walks or control much in his career, so the chances of him maintaining his current level of production seem better.
Overall, Tom Wilhelmsen remains somewhat of a mystery but has a bright future. Being away from professional baseball during his early and mid-twenties make it difficult to use his track record to determine an overall talent ceiling and gauge his chances for further success, but his steady command and impressive velocity at the big league level seem to indicate that he can can continue his positive results into next year. He may not be a dominant, top-level type of closer, but barring any unforeseen problems there is no reason to think he couldn't continue to have several All Star-caliber seasons (or thereabouts) of production as a late-inning arm.