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MLB Seattle Mariners

Seattle Mariners Closer Tom Wilhelmsen Making Adjustments To Flirt With Elite Status

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Where did this Tom Wilhelmsen guy come from?

Granted, that question was really asked last year, when the Seattle Mariners‘ former top-10 organizational prospect burst into the MLB scene after taking over for Brandon League as the team’s closer, eventually tallying 29 saves with 2.50/1.11 ERA/WHIP that included a near double-digit strikeout rate.

Not bad for a guy who was out of pro baseball for years, and was converted into a reliever just a year prior to 2012, right?

Well, we can go ahead and ask that first question all over again, because the Bartender has somehow gotten even better in 2013 in the closer’s chair — so good, in fact, that it’s getting difficult to not put him among the elite relievers of the game.

The New York Yankees were the latest to find out about it this week, having to face Wilhelm twice in a three-game set, with two of them being losses. Only one of those outings was a save situation for the righty, but he was near-perfect in both anyway, allowing just a hit over the two innings while striking out an pair in total, including earning his 11th save on Thursday.

This whole ‘near-perfect’ thing been going on all season long, really.

Of his 17 outings on the season, a whopping nine of them have been of the flawless variety. He’s allowed just six hits and five walks in his 18 innings, and the only time he’s allowed multiple runners on base also happens to be the only time that he’s allowed a run (and I really mean one run) all year … all the way back in his second outing of the season, where he gave out three of those free passes.

A hard-throwing right-hander with a  with a 0.50/0.61 ERA/WHIP — sounds elite enough, right?

Actually, the only thing that might hold him back from that discussion right now is his strikeout ability, which has seen his K/9 drop from 9.87 in 2012 to 6.50 thus far this season. Now, that could normalize and trend upwards as the sample size gets larger than 18 innings, but there are signs to suggest that it may not, either.

Why? The short of it is that Wilhelmsen might be trying more of a pitch-to-contact approach in 2013.

Batters are not swinging at his and missing at his offerings as much these days (9.7 percent in 2013, compared to 10.7 last season), but they are making more contact (79.5 percent vs. 76.9), even if less of those pitches are in the strike zone (52.9 percent vs. 55.3 percent).

That, along with an increased contact on outside pitches (33 percent to 27.1 in 2012) suggests that the M’s closer may be painting the corners enough to get batters to put the bat to the ball — and it’s resulted in ground balls more often than not (53.2 percent in 2013, 48.3 last season).

Considering that his line drive rate has held more or less steady at 17 percent this year, the .128 BABIP he owns is undoubtedly helped by a little luck (along with a little Brendan Ryan). Still, there’s nothing to suggest that Wilhelmsen can’t improve on his pace from last year, especially considering the improved control (2.50 BB/9, 3.29 in 2012).

Well, that is, unless the 29-year-old’s workload (97.1 IP since 2012, seventh-highest in the bigs) catches up to him at some point …