It is well known by now that the Tampa Bay Rays operate differently from most teams. This is especially true after they gained national attention as the American League representative in the 2020 World Series. In addition to their low payroll, Tampa Bay is known for the unique way in which they assemble and utilize their pitching staff. They have utilized openers and bullpen games in the past. Their starters do not work deep into games very often. Kevin Cash relies heavily on his bullpen, but his collection of relievers rarely consists of recognizable names. Sometimes they take fliers on big arms that can touch triple digits like Pete Fairbanks. Other times, they take a chance on someone because of their funky delivery, such as Ryan Thompson or Oliver Drake. Every year, they fill their bullpen with a variety of velocities, arm angles, and repertoires, and it works.
The Rays were at it once again when they acquired Matt Wisler from the San Francisco Giants last week. The Giants designated Wisler for assignment after he posted a 6.05 ERA 19 1/3 innings of work. Obviously, Tampa Bay’s decision-makers do not believe that high ERA is indicative of his talent and potential. At this point, when the Rays buy low on a player, we should be paying close attention to that player. Here’s why we should be keeping an eye on Wisler with his new team.
A Slider-Throwing Strikeout Machine
Why do the Rays like Wisler? For one thing, he is a strikeout machine. He is punching out 33.7% of hitters he has faced in 2021, and he owns a 30.5% strikeout rate in 100 innings of work since the start of the 2019 season.
It isn’t just the strikeout totals that make Wisler interesting. He also features one of the most extreme slider-heavy approaches in the game. The right-hander has always had a fantastic slider. For his career, the pitch has held opponents to a .189 batting average and .248 wOBA while producing a 40.1% whiff rate. In 2018, he began using it as his primary pitch instead of his fastball. Wisler continued leaning on it more and more with each subsequent season, and it has now reached the point where 90% of his pitches thrown are sliders.
Only Padres reliever Austin Adams throws sliders at a similar rate to Wisler. The Rays like unique relievers, and a pitcher who rarely throws a fastball certainly qualifies.
A Tale of Two Seasons
The last two seasons have been night and day for Wisler in terms of results. In 2020, he posted a pristine 1.07 ERA across 25 1/3 innings with the Minnesota Twins. This year, he owns an ugly 5.01 ERA. The main difference is that he has experienced both ends of the luck spectrum from one year to the other. Last season, the strikeout artist danced around a 13.1% walk rate with plenty of help from a .241 BABIP, 99.3% strand rate, and 5.7% home run to fly ball ratio. His 2.70 xERA and 3.35 FIP were both strong but noticeably higher than his ERA. Other metrics believed that Wisler was extremely fortunate to prevent runs at the rate he did. His 4.00 SIERA was quite pedestrian, and his 5.03 DRA was below-average.
The pendulum has now swung over to the opposite side. Wisler’s high ERA may be off-putting, but everything underneath the surface points to him being nearly as effective as he was in 2020, if not more so. He continues to strike out over 30% of opposing hitters and has cut his walk rate in half to 6.6%. However, his strand rate has plummeted to 61.9%, and his home run to fly ball ratio has ballooned to 16%, which is above both his career average and the figure across the league. His 3.05 xERA and 3.42 FIP are far more palatable than his ERA, his 2.78 SIERA is a career-low, and his 3.90 DRA is a significant improvement over last season. The Rays know that Wisler is due for some positive regression.
Perfecting the Slider
While Wisler has dealt with his fair share of tough luck, his signature slider has not quite been the same as it was a year ago. While it continues to induce whiffs at a 40% rate, the slider has lost about three inches of movement both vertically and horizontally from 2020 to 2021. Additionally, the former Giant is failing to hit the low and outside corner to righties with it as he did consistently with the Twins.
It won’t take much for Wisler to become a valuable member of the Rays bullpen. His strikeout stuff remains nasty as ever, and he is due for some better luck. If the Rays are able to help him add even a touch more bite to that slider, he’ll be even better. It would not be a shock to see him quickly emerge as a high-leverage option for Kevin Cash. Wisler is already off to an excellent start in his new threads. He has fired four scoreless innings, allowing just one baserunner and punching out six of the 13 hitters he has faced. Tampa Bay excels at finding talent where other teams fail to recognize it. There’s a good chance that they just found their latest in a long line of bargain relievers.
Photo from Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)