Two Flashes in a Pedestrian Pan: The (un)Remarkable Career of Stevie Wilkerson
Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Stevie Wilkerson has, up to now, been an ordinary major league ballplayer. However, two moments in his career have proven extraordinary to the extreme. Let's take a look.
Anaheim, CA; July 25th, 2019.
The beleaguered Baltimore Orioles, sitting at 33-69, are in the midst of what some would call a 162 game slump. Limping in to Anaheim on the heels of a series loss to Arizona, the Orioles already sit 29 games out from first place in the AL East, and in the middle of a long west coast road trip. On the other hand, Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels are 52-50, enjoying life after 4 straight wins over the Seattle Mariners and crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers, and are fighting for a potential playoff spot.
On paper, this game has no reason being close, due in large part to the sheer ineptitude of the Orioles. Jimmy Yacabonis is getting a rare start in a bullpen-led game, for a bullpen with 2019's worst ERA, a cumulative effort of 5.79. In the batter's box, the Orioles are better but only slightly, with a team BA of .252 and a team wOBA of .317, which would be considered poor on all accounts. And yet..
6 wild hours later, here we are. The back and forth affair has seen 9 ties and lead changes, including a 3-run Angels comeback in the 15th after a 2-run double by, who else, Mike Trout. However, the Orioles have just taken the lead with a 2-run HR from Jonathon Villar, and while Griffin Canning gets Dwight Smith Jr. to ground out to end the inning, the Orioles are in a shockingly good spot.
It's a save situation for Baltimore, and a rare chance to win a close game for a team who has had trouble winning anything at all. Naturally, centerfielder Stevie Wilkerson is coming on to pitch.
eBIS; May 18th, 2021.
It flashes across the transaction wire; "Baltimore Orioles selected the contract of OF Stevie Wilkerson from Norfolk Tides." Yes, Wilkerson has received a call up from AAA to the MLB, his first since being a regular player on the 2019 Orioles. The move is largely seen as positive among the Oriole crowd, but not in excitement for Wilkerson. Rather, because the Orioles are finally dumping struggling second baseman Rio Ruiz.
Despite only 133 major league appearances, fans and analysts feel as though they know what to expect from Wilkerson. While he has performed well in AAA, the numbers have tended to not translate. As an example, in 2019, his OPS was .805 during his time in AAA Norfolk, however that fell to .669 in 117 games that year with the Orioles. While Wilkerson has technically been serviceable at the major league level, he has to this point fallen short of being average.
A little digging shows that the more advanced numbers are equally as unkind. Wilkerson's xwOBA, an expected measure of success based on things like launch angle, exit velocity, and a player's sprint speed, of .252 ranked in the first percentile among all qualified batters. What's worse, his wOBA that year was .286, meaning that based on the contact Wilkerson made with the ball, despite the already below average stats, somehow he was outdoing projections.
Largely factoring into his lackluster numbers was his approach at the plate. He struck out on almost 30% of his at bats, squarely in the bottom of the league. While he did alright with the fastball, in 2019 he bat just .180 on breaking balls, and .164 on off-speed pitches. Even when he made contact, it was rarely impressive; as he only barreled 8 out of the 224 batted balls he had on the season.
Unfortunately, the field too provided little reprieve, as Wilkerson's 2019 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which quantifies how many runs a player saved in the field, was -7.1 which, had he qualified for the statistical leaderboards as a fielder, would've made him the 5th worst fielder in the MLB that season.
Indeed, 2019 had shown where Wilkerson's ceiling, and floor, were. However, that barely scratches the surface of what Wilkerson accomplished during the year, which may go down as the greatest blip on the radar of all time.
"Willie Mays, meet Stevie Wilkerson!"
Boston, MA; September 29th, 2019.
It's Game 162. A merciful ending to a season both teams in attendance will happily move along from. The Orioles have continued on their path, losing 39 of the season's final 60 game en route to a 54-108 record. The Red Sox have fared better, going 84-78, but it's not enough as they have been left 19 games behind the first place Yankees. Simply put, it's a good time for the offseason.
Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr. steps up to the plate, ready to face Baltimore reliever Mychal Givens. We're joining this game in the bottom of the 8th, at a 4-4 tie. Brock Holt stands on first. The at-bat starts as many do, with Bradley Jr. taking a ball, and gaining a 1-0 count.
The next pitch from Givens is a 95mph fastball. Fortunately for Givens, it finds the zone; unfortunately for him, it also finds Bradley Jr's bat.
A sharp crack, and a towering drive out to deep right field. 108.4mph off the bat with a launch angle of 30°. Statcast has it measured at 424ft, and with an expected batting average of .970(!!) the Boston crowd is ready to erupt. Fenway collectively eyes the right field fence, waiting for the ball to drop beyond the park's confines, as though allowing permission to cheer.
In the commotion, it was easy to miss Stevie Wilkerson racing to the warning track. It was easy to miss him tracking the ball along the bullpen wall. But it was impossible to miss Wilkerson nearly leaping over the fence to make a truly astounding catch.
You've just witnessed, for my money, one of the greatest catches in the history of baseball.
It's a feat of sheer athleticism. The side angle below shows his entire upper half cresting above the bullpen wall.
This catch, unlike others, is equally impressive due to what happens after the ball meets the glove. Wilkerson's body catches a lip on the wall where the fence shortens, and gets spun around, forcing him to plant his cleat in the wall to stop his momentum.
Miraculously, he hops away from the wall, leaving behind an absolutely stunned Fenway Park.
As the fans at the game take stock of what they've seen, the broadcast booths are electric in their own right.
In the Sox booth, play-by-play voice Dave O'Brien and color commentators Jerry Remy and Dennis Eckersley grapple for air-time amidst the chaos. "Oh what an effort!" from one, "What a catch!" from the second, and from the third a simple "Wow."
The Orioles booth, manned by longtime play-by-play legend Gary Thorne, was struck in a similar manner. As the broadcast fades out for commercial, Thorne puts it best; "Willie Mays, meet Stevie Wilkerson!"
Somehow, in an otherwise unexceptional year, Stevie Wilkerson's name was in the same breath as Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid. For just one moment in 2019, he was in particularly rarified air.
Well...two moments. Let's go back to where we started.
Coffee's for Closers
"And so Wilkerson is going to come on to pitch..."
Anaheim, CA; July 25th, 2019.
Our protagonist Stevie Wilkerson, much to the bewilderment of the entire attendance of Angel Stadium, is coming on to pitch the bottom of the 16th inning.
Position players have pitched before; teams commonly use them to save bullpen arms in blowouts, or occasionally in higher leverage situations in similarly lengthy games. In fact, the last position player to record a win was newly retired Oriole pensioner Chris Davis, when the Orioles defeated the Red Sox 9-6 in a 17 inning affair. This, however, was different. For the first time, a position player has been called on to record a save.
This isn't Wilkerson's first trip to the mound this season, or even in the last week. 5 days prior to today, he was called on to provide 2 innings in relief while the Orioles were down 16-6 to the Red Sox. Wilkerson performed admirably, all things considered, escaping with 1ER in 2IP facing 8 batters. Heck, a quick glance at his season stats to this point (3.33 ERA, 6.68 FIP) may have you convinced he's at worst a replacement level reliever.
Not so fast.
Wilkerson's pitch mix, according to Baseball Savant, is a blend of 4-seam fastballs, changeups, and the rare slider. In actuality, he throws one pitch, he just throws so slowly that it becomes difficult to track. I mean how do you classify this?
And yet, here he is. Toeing the rubber as the bottom of the 16th gets underway.
Brian Goodwin, the Angels LF who pinch hit for Justin Upton an eternity ago, digs in at the plate. Wilkerson starts him with the off-speed, a 54 mph lollipop that dives low and away. Ball 1. The second pitch is the heater, a blistering 56 mph changeup that might've missed high but umpire Tony Randazzo is kind. Strike 1. Two "changeups" later, we sit at 2-2. The 5th pitch of the AB is more of the same, and as expected, Goodwin gets ahold of it. However, it's hit to the deepest part of the park, not enough to get past the centerfielder. Wilkerson records his first out.
The next plate appearance belongs to Kole Calhoun. Wilkerson stays up in the zone the entire AB, feeding Calhoun changeup after changeup. Back to the wall on a 2-2 pitch, Calhoun can only manage weak contact, and grounds out to short.
So far, so good. Wilkerson's one pitch has proven effective, and he's now sitting one out away from an all-time anomaly. He may not know how historic the moment would be, but he is aware of how historic his next challenger is.
Albert Pujols. The Machine. An all-time great and a HOF lock; he's faced the best of the best and beaten them all. Wilkerson, however, gets him into an early hole. A called strike on the edge, and a foul pop out of play that looked to end the game leaves Pujols down 0-2.
The 0-2 from Wilkerson is a floater that may have caught the edge, and Wilkerson hops to the side begging for a backwards K on one of the greatest hitters of all time. Randazzo sees otherwise, and calls it a ball.
The 1-2 is another looping changeup. Pujols waits patiently before swinging, makes contact, and then...
Popped up to shallow center, Santander gathers himself under it, and makes the catch.
The game is over, the Orioles have won, and Stevie Wilkerson has recorded a save.
The very first save to ever be recorded by a position player, of all time.
It's a improbable circumstance, and a remarkable achievement. Baseball is an old sport, it's not often that something happens for the first time, yet Wilkerson has done just that. He's recorded the least plausible save in the history of baseball.
Stevie Wilkerson: Behind the Music
Wilkerson would go on to finish 2019 with a .225 average, and an OPS+ of 77, and would not make an appearance for the Orioles in the COVID-shortened 2020. While he received a call up in 2021, he only appeared in 30 games before being DFA'd and eventually, released from the Baltimore Orioles on August 17th, 2021.
It is entirely possible Wilkerson gets a minor-league contract with another team in the upcoming 2022 season, but if his career ended today what would his stats look like?
At risk of being too harsh, the word pedestrian fits. While it goes without saying that making the MLB alone is enough to have a successful baseball career, Wilkerson is unlikely to go down in the annals of the sport.
Which is why this is all so incredible.
A man with under 500 career ABs and a negative career WAR can say that his name is squarely in the history books. His catch against the Red Sox is one of the most notable plays in the Orioles pathetic last few years, and his save against the Angels will certainly receive mention in Cooperstown.
If this is it for his time in the MLB, then hats off to you Stevie Wilkerson, you'll go down in history.