That’s not a knock against Wilson. He was amazing in the NLCS. But the Braves have a deeper roster of pitchers now. If they have to start an unproven pitcher in an important postseason game again, it means something went wrong.
It’s possible Wilson, 23, can play a major role for the Braves in 2021. That’s sure to happen if his NLCS outing is a true measure of his ability.
“That game was huge for me and my career going forward just from a mental aspect,” Wilson said Thursday after pitching two scoreless innings against the Pirates in the Grapefruit League. “I think the ‘stuff’ (pitch quality) has been there. It’s just the mental aspect for me.”
The Braves will have an open rotation spot if Mike Soroka isn’t ready by opening day. Three pitchers are locks to begin the season in the rotation if they make it through the spring healthy: Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Ian Anderson is a good bet to be in the rotation come April.
That leaves Wilson vying for the fifth spot (though it’s plausible the Braves will carry six early). His competition includes Kyle Wright. He’s another young Braves pitcher who showed more in October than before. If Wilson doesn’t crack the rotation he might help in the bullpen, which isn’t as deep this season.
Wilson had short, disappointing stints with the Braves in 2018 and 2019. He started producing better results in September. Pitch command had been his biggest issue. He sorted that out in five September outings (two starts): five walks over 14 innings against 13 strikeouts.
That sample of good results was so small that it was hard to see Wilson’s NLCS performance coming. He dominated a potent lineup with several tough left-handed hitters. Wilson’s only major mistake was a fat fastball that lefty Edwin Rios hammered out of the park.
Wilson said “confidence issues” had held him back until then. That wasn’t a problem in the biggest game off his life. Wilson appeared confident and poised while dominating the Dodgers, who went on to win the World Series.
The difference: “Finally understanding and believing in myself and realizing that I belong at this level and that I can get guys out and compete at the top of this game.”
Wilson said he changed his weightlifting regimen during the offseason. More consistent mechanics was the goal. He said he also made “very minor” tweaks to his grip. Wilson said he wants a starting spot “more than anything” but he’d prefer the big-league bullpen over starting in Triple-A.
Wilson could be a good fit in the ‘pen. His fastball has very good potential. Wilson produced a higher rate of swing-and-misses with his slider last season. The Braves bullpen is heavy on lefties. Wilson could be valuable as a right-hander who can produce strikeouts.
The back end of the ‘pen includes three lefties: Will Smith, A.J. Minter, and Tyler Matzek. Two other left-handers, Grant Dayton and Sean Newcomb, also could be in the bullpen. Right-hander Chris Martin projects as the top setup guy, with Jacob Webb, Luke Jackson and Josh Tomlin in the group of righties behind him.
All those pitchers are more accomplished than Wilson. In seven career starts he’s posted a 4.40 ERA over 30-2/3 innings with 29 strikeouts, 16 walks and three home runs. In eight appearances as a reliever Wilson has a 9.75 ERA over 12 innings with eight strikeouts and nine walks.
That’s looking back. What Wilson showed in the NLCS might be a glimpse of what’s to come. The Braves selected Wilson in the fourth round of the 2016 draft out of Orange High School in Hillsborough, N.C. He’s been overshadowed by young Braves pitchers with better draft pedigrees who advanced quickly through the minor leagues.
Wilson got his shine in Game 4 against the Dodgers. The glow carried over into this year.
“I was thinking to myself on ride over there, last spring training coming into these games I had a lot of nerves,” Wilson said. “Coming into this one, the focal point is getting locked in rather than nerves.”
That’s what we saw from Wilson on the big stage against the Dodgers. If all goes according to plan for the Braves, Wilson won’t be put in such a big spot in October. If the Braves need him to do it, it wouldn’t be so much of a surprise if Wilson comes through.