The trajectory is unsustainable. At some point, one assumes, diminishing returns kick in and he adjusts. For Matt Wisler, it sounds as if 2021 is that season.
It’s still very much possible he sees plenty of success, but his opposing hitters might not see as high a percentage of sliders.
The prized new Giants reliever came up with Atlanta as a starter and had a four-pitch mix led by his fastball. According to Fangraphs, he threw his slider 23.4 percent of the time in his rookie, 2015 season.
That went up to 29.2 in 2016. He converted to relief in 2017 and upped his slider percentage to 37.3. It slid up to 46.9 in 2018 before spiking to 70.5 percent in 2019.
In last year’s abbreviated season, he threw his slider 83.4 percent of the time, which corresponded with the best season of his career. He was dominant with Minnesota, posting a 1.07 ERA in 25 1/3 innings with 35 strikeouts and 14 walks. The peripherals were a bit worse but still paint him as an effective reliever.
“There are certain hitters that I’m just like, ‘I know my slider is better than you are, and I’m just going to throw it to you. And if you hit it, I still don’t think the next time I face you, you’re gonna hit it again,’” Wisler said over Zoom on Saturday.
And yet, he doesn’t want the slider percentage to climb into the 90s this season and become like new teammate Jake McGee, who threw a fastball 95 percent of the time last year.
“I’d rather see a little bit less than that to be a little bit more of a one and a half-, two-pitch pitcher instead of just being a totally one-pitch pitcher,” Wisler said on Day Four of camp. “Just to give myself a little more room for error with the slider.”
He attributed the heavy reliance on his slider last season to an accident of the shortened schedule (which he also cited for his reverse splits last season, saying he had issues with fastballs to righties, which has been a focus of his in camp). He envisions throwing the slider closer to 70 percent of the time this season.
He did not attribute the heavy reliance on the slider last season to his breakthrough, though. The difference he views between his struggles with San Diego and Seattle in 2019 (combined 5.61 ERA) and his dominance last season was limiting home runs.
He allowed 1.75 per nine innings in ’19, which he cut down to 0.71 last season — while actually inducing fewer ground balls. He stranded 99.3 percent of runners on base last season, which hints that his ERA could inflate this year, though not dramatically.
“Trying to avoid the home runs has been a big thing,” said Wisler, who was signed to a $1.15 million pact after the Twins surprisingly nontendered him. “I think last year I did not hang as many pitches as I did in 2019. The mechanical stuff — I don’t really, knock on wood, hang a whole lot of them. It’s more or less, even the ones that kind of back up on me, they still have late movement to it, which allows me to get away with it a little bit more.”
He has a good feel for how his pitches play best and a good feel for the Giants who surround him. The Giants have become a sort of haven for former Twins, including on the coaching side, as new assistant pitching coach J.P. Martinez had been with Minnesota and is a “very intelligent guy,” Wisler said. He didn’t know Tyler Rogers but did know his twin brother, Taylor, who throws 95-mph heat — overhand and lefty — for the Twins.
“It’s crazy,” Wisler said. “Everything’s pretty much identical about them except for they’re polar opposites when it comes to throwing.”
There’s even some former Giants connections. He pitched alongside Sergio Romo and all his sliders last season.
“I learned a lot, we had some good conversations last year,” the 28-year-old said. “Just trusting him and watching him go about it — he’s a guy who doesn’t overpower you, but he trusts stuff, he believes in his stuff.”
As does Wisler, even if the usage rate of that stuff naturally changes over the course of a full season. His 92-mph fastball is not going to strike many out, but it can be used to set up his slider more.
“I imagine just over the course of a 162-game season, it’s a little bit difficult to have your slider usage be in that 80 percent-plus range,” Gabe Kapler said. “At the same time, we think that pitch is really good.”