The Free Agent Paying Dividends in Anaheim

This is not how the season was supposed to begin for the Angels. As Mike Scioscia’s club takes the field for their 33rd game of the year, they will stare at a Texas ballclub that has already established a seven game lead in the AL West. Despite their lavish off-season spending, the Angels stand just 14-18, and the struggles of star free agent signing Albert Pujols are the primary reason why. Pujols is embroiled in the longest slump of his career, and by Wins Above Replacement, only Brennan Boesch has been less productive so far this season.

However, lost in the cloud of discussion surrounding what is wrong with their first baseman is the underreported success of the other guy that the Angels pursued this winter – C.J. Wilson.

Lured away from the Rangers with a five year, $77.5 million contract, Wilson’s deal was viewed with skepticism after he struggled to throw strikes in the postseason. Since his command can be shaky and he lacks top shelf velocity, many people have been waiting for Wilson to go off track, and his postseason struggles were offered up as evidence that he wasn’t actually the frontline starter that his numbers suggested.

Based on early returns, we can put many of those concerns to rest – Wilson is continuing to prove that he is a legitimate high-end starter. In fact, his 2012 numbers are almost a dead ringer for his 2011 regular season performance:

2011 – 8.1% BB%, 22.5% K%, 49.3% GB%, 2.94 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.41 xFIP
2012 – 8.9% BB%, 23.1% K%, 51.3% GB%, 2.61 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.44 xFIP

Rather than wearing down after carrying the largest workload of his career – including the playoffs, he threw 4,118 pitches over 251 1/3 innings – Wilson is actually looking stronger than ever. After averaging 90.8 MPH on his fastball a year ago, his velocity is actually up to 91.5 MPH this year, and that gap actually undersells the velocity improvement, as average velocity is at its lowest point early in the season. Last April, Wilson’s fastball averaged just 90.0 MPH before climbing to a high of 91.5 in September. Wilson has started 2012 throwing as hard as he did at the end of 2011, and if the usual trend of velocity picking up as the weather gets warmer holds, then Wilson might be sitting around 93 by years end.

That added velocity can help Wilson keep right-handed batters at bay, but he doesn’t need the help against left-handers. Due to the arm slot from where Wilson releases the ball, he is already one of the toughest left-on-left match-ups in all of baseball. In fact, since the start of the 2010 season, Wilson’s held left-handed batters to a .197/.273/.259 slash line, second only to David Price in terms of dominance against LHBs. Like with Price, a large part of Wilson’s success against lefties has come from keeping the ball in the park, as he’s faced 419 left-handed hitters and only allowed three home runs over the last two years and change.

Wilson’s been more vulnerable to right-handed batters who get a better view of the ball coming out of his hand, but to combat this weakness, Wilson is relying a bit more on his change-up so far this year. While it’s not a drastic change as of yet – he’s throwing about three additional change-ups per game this year – the change-up is the pitch that best neutralizes opposite handed hitters, and he’s going to see a lot of strong right-handed bats every time he matches up with his former teammates. The right-handed heavy Texas line-up could present Wilson with a chance to really test out his change-up, as Josh Hamilton may very well be the only lefty he sees tonight.

While he hasn’t received the attention that Yu Darvish – the man who replaced him in the Rangers rotation and will oppose him on the mound in this evening’s match-up – has generated, it’s Wilson who has been the better pitcher to start the 2012 season. With his dominance against lefties and his improving arsenal against righties, Wilson shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. While the Angels may be wishing there was a return policy for their $240 million first baseman, Wilson has been worth every dime so far.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

One Response to “The Free Agent Paying Dividends in Anaheim”

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  1. Spardger says:

    I think you spoke a little too soon.

    LOL pujols 240 million dollar contract.

    Vote -1 Vote +1