Coming into the 2013 season, Neil Wagner was a 29-year-old right-handed reliever with all of five big-league innings under his belt. Prior to signing with Toronto last November, he had bounced from the Indians to the A’s to the Padres. A former 21st-round pick out of North Dakota State, he was a minor-league journeyman.
With the help of his trusty notebook, Wagner became a bona fide Blue Jay. After beginning the campaign in Triple-A Buffalo, where he logged a 0.76 ERA and 16 saves, he ended up being one of the most-reliable arms in the Toronto bullpen. Called up in late May, he went 2-4, 3.79 as one of the few pleasant surprises on a underachieving team.
Wagner talked about his stat-influenced road to success when the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park in September.
Wagner on using data to his advantage: “If you see a guy is hitting .340 against certain types of pitches, or on pitches in certain locations, it bears looking into why. The same if he’s hitting poorly against something. With any sort of statistical outlier, you want to look into why it is happening, and how you might be able to use that to your advantage.
“We have a lot of stuff at our fingertips, and what I find most useful is the sheet of scouting information we get before each series. It has versus-right-and-left, pitch types, first-pitch swings in a number of situations. From that, you have to parse out what is useful to you. You can’t commit all of those things to memory, and not all of them are things you’d want to commit to memory.
“The pitching coaches also give their thumbnail sketches of the hitters. You take that, and then watch the game, and video. Again, you parse out what is most useful to you.”
On video and visualizing the strike zone: “If you look at the standard nine-box strike zone, a pitch at the bottom outside corner of one of the quadrants — say, on the knees, away — it’s different than a pitch in the upper right-hand quadrant of that same box. One is closer to the middle. You have to watch video and put some of those numbers into the proper context.
“Actually visualizing the quadrants — when you’re on the mound — is hard to do. The reality is that you’re not going to put the ball in a 2×2-inch spot every single time. I mostly have a plan of where I want to go and try to put the ball in that area. I don’t usually get that specifically precise with my visualization.”
On his in-game notebook: “What I’ve done all year is keep a book during the game. We have those statistics here, but in Triple-A it was especially useful. I want to know if guys are swinging early in the count, because depending on who they are and how they swing, I may change how I pitch to them. And not just good hitters. A very-limited hitter might only do damage if he catches a fastball in the middle of the plate early in the count.
“Watching video is helpful, but so is watching during the game. You’re out there for three hours, and half of that time your pitchers are pitching. That’s potential learning time. You can watch the game in its context, as it happens. With video, you don’t necessarily see his previous at bat — you don’t watch his at bats within the context of the game.
“When I was in the minor leagues, and didn’t have video, I would go back through my outing, pitch by pitch, later that night. I didn’t want to forget anything that might have been useful, so I’d make notes on guys I faced.
“When other guys pitch — especially right-handed pitchers in our bullpen — I watch to see if there is there anything that tells me I might want to make an adjustment the next time I face certain guys.
“One thing you can’t necessarily tell when you watch video of other pitchers is what exactly their plan was. You don’t know what they were thinking when they tried to execute a certain pitch. I haven’t really done much of what you could call ‘the mental state of mind note taking,’ but sometimes it’s useful to note down that sort of thing. What I’ve mostly been concerned with this year is having more or less the same mental process in all of my outings. From there, I use the notes I take to adapt my strengths to the hitters’ weaknesses as best I can.”
On becoming a thinking man‘s pitcher: “There are guys who, what works for them is to not think too much. They just execute pitches. There is a very strong case to be made for that. I’m not really like that. Whether all the prep work gets me to the exact same spot, had I done none of it, or not, I feel better having done it. At the very least, I feel more confident about the pitch I’m about to throw, because I’m as sure as I can be that if I execute, it’s the right pitch to get the guy out.
“With the Oakland Athletics, in the minor leagues, we always did advance meetings and I’d always take notes. Last year, when I went to the Padres, that just didn’t happen at all in the minor leagues. I found that I really missed it. I started doing more and more of it toward the end of last year, and this year I really ramped it up.
“I kept my own little database on some of the relevant statistics. I really increased my note-taking, because I felt I needed that in the minor leagues. I provided my own data, and it helped. As a habit, I still do it here in the big leagues. It keeps me focused on the game and gets me as prepared as I can possibly be once I step out there.
“It basically became part of my routine in Buffalo, and I was very successful there. It helped me pitch well in Buffalo, and pitching well in Buffalo is what got me here. Hopefully it can help me stay here.”
On other adjustments: “Last year, in spring training, the A’s decided it would be a good idea [if I threw a slider]. I had kind of a big, classic, overhand 12-6 curveball, and it never really clicked for me. It wasn’t really going to work for me, so I’m now throwing a slider, which is a much more useful pitch. I can throw it for strikes. It’s just a better pitch in terms of hitters not being able to get as much of a read on it as my curveball.
“I feel I’ve been able to more consistently repeat my delivery as well, which is somewhat [related to] my mental approach. So it’s been a number of things. I decided coming in that I was going to try a number of things this season and see which of them worked. Luckily, most of them have worked. Maybe there will be less-dramatic changes this off-season, but I’m still looking to get better.”