LAKELAND, Fla. — The first-pitch slider was pulled foul as Matt Wisler settled into his first session against hitters as a Tiger. There was no mystery that pitch was coming, but the way he throws it, it doesn’t matter.
The next pitch, too, was a slider. This one, however, was slower with more of a break. It, too, was fouled off, though not pulled.
With the hitter’s timing slowed down, Wisler reared back, grunted and threw his best fastball, drawing a swing and miss. Even for a live batting practice session against hitters who are still getting their timing, it was impressive.
While most relievers use the fastball to set up the breaking stuff, Wisler does the opposite. His slider has not only been his primary pitch over the last four years, it has been his dominant pitch: 70.5 percent of his pitches in 2019, 83.4 percent in ’20, 90.9 in ’21 and 91.5 percent last year, according to Statcast.
Over the last two years, that’s 1,400 sliders and 136 fastballs.
“In the back of your mind, you’re always thinking: ‘When is he going to throw the heater?’” said Austin Meadows, who batted against Wisler in 2019 (1-for-2 with a double) and played with Wisler on the Rays in ’21.
And yet, after all those sliders, hitters still have trouble tracking it, let alone hitting it, because all those sliders don’t behave the same.
“He’s got so many different sliders,” Meadows said. “Some of them don’t break the same.”
Said Wisler: “My slider moves differently, and that’s why I get away with it.”
Wisler can throw sliders in three different locations against left-handed hitters, and all three could behave differently.
“It does random things,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He has almost a couple different varieties of them. I know he wants to increase his fastball usage a little bit, and his sinker, but really his bread-and-butter is his slider and how differently he can shape it to impact hitters.”
So why did the Rays designate Wisler for assignment last September, in the middle of a playoff race? While opponents weren’t hitting the slider (.188 batting average), there were signs they were catching up. The swing-and-miss rate on the pitch dropped from 40.4 percent in 2019 to 37.9 percent in ’20, 33.1 percent in ’21 and 25.3 percent last year. The exit velocity, too, was creeping up.
Moreover, the velocity on both his slider and fastball were creeping down, which put Wisler into a cycle with his slider.
“I’ve obviously taken it to another level throwing it so much,” Wisler said of the slider. “But last year, especially with my fastball velocity down, I’m not going to get beat with an 89 mph fastball. I’m going to throw a slider, at least have something with movement. Obviously I’d like more fastballs this year, assuming I can get my fastball velocity back where I’d like to.”
That brought him to the Tigers, who signed him last week to a Minor League contract with an invite to Spring Training. For a reliever now on his eighth team since 2018, Detroit offers a bit of familiarity. President of baseball operations Scott Harris was the Giants’ general manager who signed Wisler as a free agent after the ’20 season and then traded him to the Rays in June ’21. Hinch worked in the Padres’ front office when San Diego drafted Wisler in ’11 out of Bryan High School in Northwest Ohio, just two hours from Detroit. The scout who signed Wisler, Mark Conner, is now the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting.
More importantly, Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter was a teammate in the Padres’ farm system, part of the same pitching staff at Class A Fort Wayne in 2012.
“I know Scott mentioned it: If I can just get back to where I was in 2021 with velo and stuff like that, I’ve got a really good chance to help this team win and hopefully be in a back-end role with these guys,” the 30-year-old right-hander said, “being the only one in here who has more than a couple years. Obviously this bullpen has a lot of really good stuff, but sometimes it’s easier just to go with an older guy.
“My goal is just to make the team, first and foremost, get my stuff right, get myself back where I know I should be, and after that just go out there and hopefully surprise some people with this team and hopefully win some ballgames.”