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Has the Blue Jays' Neil Wagner found "it" at age 29?

I had an opportunity to speak with former Buffalo Bisons closer Neil Wagner this Sunday before the Bisons game, and that interview could not have been better timed.

Neil Wagner with the Buffalo Bisons
Neil Wagner with the Buffalo Bisons
Photo courtesy the Buffalo Bisons, used with permission.

Generally by age 29, a player's true ability is well known. He probably has played more than half a decade in professional baseball, and if he hasn't stuck at the big leagues by then, or is a struggling journeyman, he likely isn't going to suddenly improve drastically. Of course, Toronto Blue Jays fans know of the biggest counterexample: Jose Bautista, who found "it" in his 29-year old season back in 2010, going from utility guy to an all-star slugger.

Now, that sort of leap that late in a career may never happen again, but down in the AAA International League, Neil Wagner, a new year baby born in 1984, had been trying to do his best Jose Bautista impression as the closer for the Buffalo Bisons.

Wagner was drafted in the 21st round of the 2005 draft by the Cleveland Indians out of North Dakota State University and made his professional debut for their short season-A club in 2006. He was sent to the Athletics for cash in 2010 and made his major league debut the next year on August 31. In his short six-game major league career he recorded a 7.20 ERA and 1.800 WHIP, striking out four in five innings pitched. Over his eight-year minor league career, Wagner had a 3.64 ERA and a 1.317 WHIP, as well as an impressive 16.7 K%. He split 2012 between the Athletics' and Padres' AAA teams, recording a combined 5.46 ERA and 1.596 WHIP in just under 63 innings pitched (although both teams are in the hitting-friendly Pacific division of the Pacific Coast League).

The Blue Jays signed Wagner, a free agent this past offseason, to a minor-league contract. Wagner had several offers, but chose the Blue Jays organization after conferring with his agent while vacationing in Peru.

"Things have gone well so far," Wagner said.

"Well" may be a slight understatement: Wagner had been on fire right out of the gate. In 19 games and 20 innings pitched with Buffalo, he has 13 saves, recording a minuscule 0.87 ERA and 0.885 WHIP. He allowed two earned runs on three hits back on April 14, and in the 16 games since he has pitched 17.1 innings of shutout, six-hit ball.

Prior to 2013, Wagner sported a fastball, a slider, and a changeup. Looking at PITCHf/x data from his cup of coffee in the big leagues, his fastball averaged 95.2 mph, ranging between 91.3 and 97.4 clicks his changeup was about 10 mph slower, and his slider came in the mid-to-high 80's.

So what has changed since 2011? Wagner mentioned to me that his coaches had asked him to add a curveball to his arsenal, but he it wasn't particularly effective, and may have even given him trouble locating his other pitches as well. For this season he decided to ditch that curve, which has allowed him to throw more strikes with his other pitches, although he doesn't really know why that is. This season he has thrown 66% of his pitches for strikes (20% looking, 14% swinging), leading to 32 strikeouts and limiting his walks to just eight.

He is also sporting a new slider, something that he "stumbled upon."

"At the end of the year last season, our catcher in [AAA] Tucson had suggested, 'hey maybe try working on this cutter, it would be a good pitch for you.' So I worked on it this offseason, and it sort of morphed into the slider that I have now, so I kind of scrapped the curveball I was throwing last year."

Another big change this year has been his fastball speed. His average velocity on that pitch has been up this year, including a game when he threw in the high 90's, even hitting 101 mph.

"It's not so much that the velocity is so much higher," Neil suggested, further adding that his fastball velocity has been consistent with what it had been back in 2011, but that he is just hitting the high numbers more consistently.

Wagner had only worked on back-to-back days twice this season, most recently on Sunday when I was in attendance. The Indianapolis Indians had a runner on second with two outs in the top of the ninth when Wagner was summoned from the bullpen to close it up. He threw eight pitches, seven of which were fastballs, with one slider mixed in there. The fastballs ranged from 88 to 95 mph, but he sat mostly in the mid-90s. After the game, Bisons announcers Ben Wagner (no relation) and Pat Malacaro suggested that the stadium radar gun must have been off on his first pitch (88 mph fastball). Alex Presley looked at two 94 mph strikes before the batter fouled off a 93 mph offering then singling on a 91 mph fastball. Felix Pie, the next batter, looked at a 95 mph fastball before flying out later. The lone slider he threw actually went past catcher Mike Nickeas for a wild pitch.

One of the reasons for his great success so far may be his defined role in the bullpen, which has allowed him to see as much of the hitters as possible before facing them.

"It's nice to have that role, you get good innings, and you know when you're going to pitch," but Wagner, aware of his situation, added, "but at the same time, you have to realize that you're not going to go up and be the closer in the big leagues. So take it for what it is and pitch the innings you get."

Wagner was not the only one who was thinking about a possible call-up.

"If he goes to the big leagues, we couldn't replace him," Bisons manager Marty Brown told me in a scrum after Sunday's game, "he's done a hell of a job, I think he could be a big benefit to any club he pitches for."

Unfortunately for Marty Brown and the Bisons, Neil Wagner is now a Blue Jay. The big club are probably hoping that Brown was right in about Wagner being able to make an impact anywehere. Although Wagner would likely not be getting the late-game high-leverage situations in the big leagues yet, it is still exciting to see such a live arm come up to fill in Toronto's depleted bullpen in the middle innings. He hasn't pitched since Monday and may make his debut as early as today, with fill-in starter Esmil Rogers on the mound.

Wagner wore #15 with the Bisons, but will be wearing #45 for the Blue Jays. Coincidentally, Jose Bautista also underwent a number change (from #23 to #19) in his age 29 year--let's see if we can find more parallels between the two of them at the end of the season.