MLB: Giants’ closer role is in good hands once again
By Andrew Baggarly
San Jose Mercury News
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — San Francisco Giants setup man Jeremy Affeldt looked across the clubhouse, took stock of relief ace Brian Wilson and shook his head disapprovingly.
“Look at him,” Affeldt said. “He’s got five different shades of green going on. Olive shorts, bright green high tops, dark green ski cap. “. . . I get on him all the time about how he dresses.”
Maybe one day, Wilson will show up with his Mohawk dyed the color of wheat grass, too.
But there is nothing green about the way Wilson pitched last season. He was more composed and more reliable in the ninth inning. He made a near across-the-board statistical improvement from 2008, when he was an NL All-Star as a first-year closer.
His 79 saves over the past two seasons are the most by a Giant since Robb Nen in 2001-02. And even though Wilson lives out loud, he’s quietly become the answer to a most nagging problem.
More than seven years after Nen sacrificed his shoulder to help the Giants reach the 2002 World Series — a period spent hoping and praying behind Tyler Walker, Matt Herges, Dustin Hermanson, Brad Hennessey, Mike Stanton, and gulp, Armando Benitez — the Giants finally have a reliable anchor in the ninth inning.
“It’s not easy, not at all easy, to find the right guy,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. “I don’t think you teach someone to close. It happens in front of everybody’s eyes. You see if somebody can hack it or if they can’t.”
Wilson always had the right stuff. His average fastball last season was 96.6 mph according to Fangraphs; only the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton (97.7) was firmer among all big league pitchers to throw 50 innings.
Yet there remains some doubt among the talk radio chatterers and message board folk, mostly because Wilson doesn’t fit some fans’ image of dependability.
Nen was a laconic fireman with a square jaw who tucked his golf shirts into his jeans. He didn’t have a Mohawk or water serpent tattoo. He didn’t speak in deadpan non-sequiturs or devise a nickname like “B-Weezie.” He didn’t have his own reality show or late-night tweet himself into hot water.
And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Nen never appeared on a Hollywood gossip site.
But Wilson has done some life editing recently. He quit Twitter last summer, his “Life of Brian” show has run its course, and his Hollywood soirees — which attracted Lindsay Lohan and Leonardo Di Caprio, according to the gossipazzi — are strictly offseason affairs.
“There’s a maturation process,” Sabean said. “He’s smart to realize that and learn from the mistakes he’s made and how they might distract him.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy said he has no trouble separating Wilson’s quirks off the mound from his performance on it.
“We know we’re handing the ball to the right guy,” Bochy said. “And really, most of your closers are a little different. Let’s face it: It’s as much pressure as you can put on a player.”
Wilson has handled failure even more successfully than success. Although he has 13 blown saves over the past two seasons, he has blown consecutive opportunities only once.
But while Wilson nearly halved his ERA and allowed fewer baserunners last season, one measure didn’t improve. He averaged 4.35 pitches per batter, slightly up from the previous year. Only two other NL pitchers in 2009 (minimum 50 innings) threw more pitches per batter — the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg.
That’s why Wilson is working on his two-seam fastball to throw in situations when he wants a groundball. It’s another hard, moving pitch to complement his cutter and four-seamer. He’s listening to advice on throwing a changeup, which could make him a devastating presence.
“The way I see it, you still have to make the team every year,” Wilson said. “If I’m not working as hard as I possibly can, somebody else will be willing to work harder.”
Nobody questions Wilson’s preparation. Even with his high pitch totals and several multiple-inning save appearances, he lowered his ERA in September while maintaining his velocity. If the Giants made the playoffs, he was physically primed for it.
“He’s developed this indestructible personality, and his body certainly seems to match,” Sabean said. “It’s almost Navy SEAL-like, the way he conditions himself.”
All camouflage? Now that’s an easier way to be green.