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C.J. Wilson Rebounds

C.J. Wilson put together an altogether terrific 2011 season, even garnering a good deal of votes for the Cy Young award that year. He posted a 2.94 ERA with 16 wins and a 23% strikeout rate for the Texas Rangers. After signing a lucrative deal with the Anaheim Angels the following year, his performance was a little disappointing. His control suffered, with his walk rate ballooning to 10.5% and his ERA rose to 3.83 (4.04 FIP) with a 1.34 WHIP. He went from a solid #2 to about a $5-$6 dollar player, getting selected around 125-130 overall.

While the cat might not have been completely dead, there certainly was a bounce in 2013. Wilson won 17 games, pitched to a 3.39 ERA (3.51 FIP) and saw an uptick in his strikeout rate and a fall in his walk rate. On the whole, his season left him ranked 34th overall according to the black magic of Zach Sanders, ranking him ahead of the likes of Hiroki Kuroda, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, and David Price, just to name a few. How he did it might best reflect whether he can repeat this performance in 2014.

The most glaring change from 2012 to 2013 was his pitch selection. While BIS and PitchF/X can quibble with each other all they want on pitch classifications, I’ll use the data from Brooks Baseball simply for the consistency of argument, as we’ll get to usage and location in a moment. Here is C.J. Wilson’s repertoire from 2012 to 2013:

2012 2013
Fourseam 27.6% 36.9%
Sinker 23.6% 13.9%
Change 9.1% 6.0%
Slider 9.1% 18.4%
Curve 13.9% 14.6%
Cutter 16.7% 10.2%

That sinker and cutter are probably splitting hairs for what PitchF/X might be calling a two-seam fastball, but whatever — because he cut the usage of both significantly and the beneficiary was his slider, which he used sparingly in 2012. The results on that slider were a collective (versus both LHB and RHB) .182 batting average and .243 slugging percentage.

Against left handed batters, Wilson increased the use of his four seam fastball on first pitch and counts where he was behind by about eight percent. This made him a little more hittable on the season, but it also contributed to bringing down his walk rate. When ahead in the count, he increased the usage of his slider about five percent against lefties but perhaps more interesting is the increase against right handed batters. When ahead in the count or with two strikes, Wilson never had much of an out pitch in 2012. But in 2013, he increased the use of the slider in these counts by about 100%, providing a 21% whiff rate, up from just 15% the year prior.

Overall, his effectiveness versus right handed batters didn’t improve in 2013, actually registering a little worse in wOBA, but he managed to miss more bats via the slider, which RHB hit just .218 (.307 SLG) against as opposed to a .294 batting average and .392 slugging percentage in 2012. Just make sure the baseballs are rubbed up well before the game.

Wilson had fairly dramatic home/away splits in 2013, pitching far better in Los Angeles of Anaheim than he did on the road, and he does still need more work on his walk rate in order to get his WHIP in a more comfortable arena for traditional roto formats. As far as projection systems go, you would have to make a decision who you trust. Steamer doesn’t like him much at all in 2014, envisioning a BABIP and strand rate at odds with his career numbers and contributing to an inflated ERA, while Oliver thinks he can pretty much repeat his 2013 success.

I find Wilson difficult to predict. He’s 33, has diminishing velocity, and he’s had to really adapt to continue to be effective. At some point hitters will adjust, and it remains to be seen if Wilson will make a concomitant move, but I’m sure he will. What version of Wilson you get is anyone’s guess. Take the middle ground between the projection systems and you have a pretty good #4 starter in standard roto formats, but it will probably take a 9th or 10th round pick to get him, or perhaps $10 or $11 bucks. If you’d prefer to avoid seeking out diamonds in the rough or sleeper picks to round out your rotation, he might be a guy to target.