PEORIA, Ariz. — To look at the scorebook it would seem like just another strikeout. In his one inning of work in a Cactus League game against the San Diego Padres, Tom Wilhelmsen ended the third inning with a swinging strikeout of Chase Headley.
But upon closer look, it was something just a little more. It was a hint of something that could pay benefits for Wilhelmsen and the Mariners this coming season.
The at-bat was a nice little battle between the Mariners closer and the Padres All-Star third baseman.
The switch-hitting Headley, who hit .286 with 31 homers and 115 RBI last season, fell behind 0-2 in the count, taking a fastball for a strike and fouling off a changeup.
Wilhelmsen tried to put him away — pumping two 94-mile-per-hour fastballs that were both just out of the strike zone — that Headley wouldn’t bite on. So with a 2-2 count, what would Wilhelmsen do? Would he fire another one of his riding mid- to high-90s four-seam fastballs at Headley? Or maybe he would buckle his knees with his nasty overhand curveball?
Nope. Wilhelmsen went with his third best pitch, throwing a wicked 88 mile-per-hour changeup that sank and ran away from a helpless Headley, who waved at the pitch.
Wilhelmsen put his head down and meandered 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? That’s not right.”
When told a day later about Headley’s reaction, Wilhelmsen replied, “I didn’t know that. That’s good.”
That’s good for the Mariners. But that’s very bad for hitters.
It’s not as if Wilhelmsen isn’t tough enough to hit. According to Fangraphs, his fastball averaged 96.2 miles per hour last season and reached triple digits with plenty of movement. His curveball is about 19 miles per hour slower, averaging 77.2 mph with a ridiculous amount of break. He struck out 87 hitters in 791/3 innings pitched.
Usually most closers rely on only two pitches, so why the need for the third pitch?
“It’s something that will disrupt hitters,” Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. “That third pitch is great weapon against elite hitters, who have the ability to pick up the rotation of your pitches so early. You use it on 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 how Wilhelmsen used it against Headley. And he will use it this season.
“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 Wilhelmsen’s changeup has been an ongoing process. He used it just 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 seems to have given him that.
Wilhelmsen uses a “circle grip” 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 what teammate Felix Hernandez does with his grip.
“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 changeup that — when executed properly — is very similar to Hernandez’s dominating changeup. It’s got a high velocity of around 87-89 miles per hour 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 moving in on left-handed hitters, the changeup will offer a pitch moving down and away. It could be vital for getting soft ground balls as well as sinking strikes.
“When you throw with the velocity that Tommy throws with and you maintain that armspeed, it’s just a pitch that hitters don’t recognize,” Willis said.
Of course, Wilhelmsen is still going to use the fastball and curveball primarily. But why stop growing as a pitcher? 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.”