Closer Mentality: League vs. Wilhelmsen


Scene one: The Mariners are basking in the glow of a two-run lead. It’s been three innings since the opposing team manufactured a run, and with the first batter of the ninth inning, a fastball lands easily in the glove of the left fielder. The pitcher works an 0-2 count, then gives up a single to batter No. 2. The next batter receives a double; the fourth, a four-pitch walk. With the bases juiced, the last batter of the inning grounds into a double play.

Scene two: After eight scoreless innings, the Mariners trail by a single run. The ninth begins with a four-pitch walk, followed by a line drive off the pitcher’s glove. With runners in scoring position, the pitcher issues an intentional walk to the third batter, grabs a three-pitch strikeout with the fourth, and induces a double play on his 13th and final pitch.

In the first scene, the Mariners win. The lead is preserved, the crowd breathes a sigh of relief, and the feeling is one of pleasant, though not overt, surprise. In the second scenario, the Mariners lose. Despite an effective outing, the offense falters in the bottom of the ninth, and fans walk away from the game feeling unjustifiably disappointed in the closer.

Perhaps you guessed, and rightly so, that the pitchers in question are Tom Wilhelmsen and Brandon League. It may not be apparent from the scenes described, but the postgame emotions are relatively familiar to the Mariners fanbase. With six blown saves, League incurred wrath regardless of recent success. In equal measure, Wilhelmsen inspires unwavering trust with his knack for getting out of jams, even when he creates them.

Let me make this clear: Tom Wilhelmsen is not the new Brandon League. However, some of the situations he’s been entrusted with have reawakened feelings that, as one SoDo writer put it, are “League-like.” Could Wilhelmsen become the next League? Unlikely. Still, my feelings regarding both closers have been so colored by emotion and habit, rather than a solid understanding of their track records, that I’d like to put this to rest once and for all.

Without proper context, there are a few similarities between the two:

League          Wilhelmsen
48 H                 49 H
20 R/18 ER   20 R/18 ER
1 HR                 4 HR
19 BB               23 BB
6 HLD              7 HLD
6 BS                  3 BS

League’s allowed home run total is impressive, to say the least—even taking into account his 12 appearances for the Dodgers, he has just one homer on the season. On closer examination, League carries a ground ball rate of 46.8%, while just 25.7% of outs are made on fly balls, yielding a GB/FB rate of 1.82. By comparison, batters facing Wilhelmsen make 46.0% of outs on ground balls and 37.4% on fly balls for a GB/FB rate of 1.23.

Before you go burning those Bartender jerseys, however, let’s examine the next set of numbers.

League          Wilhelmsen
.272 AVG       .210 AVG
.307 wOBA    .271 wOBA
38 SO                70 SO
9 SV                  20 SV
3.63 ERA        2.64 ERA
3.46 FIP         2.82 FIP
1.42 K/BB      3.29 K/BB

The first two things that jump out at me are Wilhelmsen’s additional 11 saves and .210 AVG. While this paints him in a highly favorable light, seven of those saves were earned after Brandon League’s departure, not to mention League’s lack of save opportunities after losing the closing role to Wedge’s closer-by-committee approach.

With regard to batting average, Wilhelmsen outperforms League in every situation. Opponents are batting .227 against Tom and .274 against Brandon in their home parks. At Safeco Field, the numbers drop to .191 against Tom and .271 against Brandon. Aside from the Safeco fences doing their part, Wilhelmsen sees a strand rate of 79.0%, almost 10% higher than League’s rate of 69.9%.

Finally, keep in mind that League’s numbers are based on his three months with the Mariners (disregarding his 12 appearances, loss, and 6.00 ERA in Dodger blue). In that time, he recorded 46 outings and 44.2 IP, while Wilhelmsen has racked up 58 appearances and 61.1 IP so far.

Of course, Wilhelmsen’s dominance is just reflected in his results; you can find his pitch arsenal and its effectiveness analyzed in depth over here. Equally as valid is the point that Brandon League’s performances are rendered moot with his move to Southern California. Then again, this isn’t really an argument for either pitcher. I stand by the Mariners’ decision to send League to L.A.—while I wish him the best, I’ll take “Last Call” over “Closing Time” any day.