For the remainder of the 2012 season, I’ll take a weekly look at one Angel’s recent performance and how it relates to their overall season and, in some cases, the fortunes of the team. This week, our focus lies on starter C.J. Wilson.
Over his last five starts, C.J. Wilson has allowed 23 runs and seen his ERA rise to 3.34. His walk totals are abysmal; two starts of 5, two more of 3, all while failing to finish the 7th inning. For the first time this season, Wilson’s been touched by the home run ball; an August 2 start against Texas (his former teammates) saw Wilson allow 2 bombs in a single game for the 1st time this season. He’s given up at least 8 hits in 4 of those starts and labors through 20-25 pitch innings all too frequently. Trending downward and unable to rally following a closed-door strategy meeting with manager Mike Scioscia, Wilson needs to see vast improvements in his numbers to warrant both his contract and a place in a contending club’s starting rotation.
C.J. Wilson’s 5 year, 75 million dollar contract signed last off-season drew a variety of responses, the most common involving questions of his relatively short track record of success. Following four seasons of varying performances, Wilson entered 2009 with the mark of a journeyman who had somehow stuck with one team. He was a wild reliever, position a 4.2 BB/9 rate and an ERA+ of 95. His 2008 was his major league nadir. In the ostensible role of closer, Wilson walked 27 batters in 46 innings without fooling anyone; His 74 ERA+ was hampered especially during his last 7 outings in which he was rocked for 8 earned runs in just 5 innings before being shut down in August. And then, reinvention. The straight-edge kid turned one strong year in the pen into an opportunity to start games for the burgeoning Rangers and he delivered, posting back-to-back 200 inning seasons. The durability was especially impressive considering his propensity to nibble the corners and give up free passes. Toss in the offensive paradise that is Arlington and Wilson became a rare commodity indeed, the front-line starter who could take the Rangers into October and supplement their electric bats with an excellent arm.
And so, the Los Angeles Angels recognized Wilson’s value in two ways: As a starter and as a rival to be pried away. Their 5 year, 75 million dollar deal gave Wilson big cash and the chance to return to his Orange County roots. For the first half of 2012, he gave plenty in return, earning a deserved All-Star appearance by limiting opponents to a .202 batting average in his first 18 starts. Casual fans would notice the 9-5 record and 2.43 ERA as the obvious marks of a star hurler on a prolonged rise. Supporters of the Wilson contract looked past his age (31 at the time of signing), instead pointing to lesser wear on his arm thanks to half a decade in the bullpen. By July, Wilson was seen as the number 2 on a contending Angels team dealing with an oft-injured Dan Haren and an imploding Ervin Santana.
A closer look at Wilson reveals major warning signs even in the midst of his 1st-half achievements. For the Angels, Wilson was a fair starter enjoying a run of sensational good luck. The ERA? Largely a mirage benefited by 3 factors:
1). Wilson moved from a Texas park skewed heavily toward offense (2011 Park Factor of 110) to a marine-layered nightmare for sluggers in Anaheim (2012 Park Factor of 91). His numbers, though balanced between home and road thus far in 2012, were sure to improve by park benefits alone.
2.) Wilson plays in front of an excelent defense. Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos (in limited time) represent the rangiest outfielders in the game while Torii Hunter has proven better suited to right field than center. Both the 2011 Rangers and the 2012 Angels have saved about 35 runs more than average, allowing for more balls Wilson tosses to find gloves.
3.) Absolute luck. Though the Angels’ defensive contributions already help Wilson’s numbers, his 1st half luck with balls on play goes beyond solid defense. His first half BABIP in 2012? .244, a number extremely difficult to sustain for a whole year, especially since Wilson relies more on ground ball outs less hindered by Anaheim’s thick air. While Jered Weaver can keep serving up 88 mph fastballs to be belted right into Mike Trout’s glove, Wilson has too-often seen balls find holes in the 2nd half this season. His BABIP has skyrocketed to .370, also near-impossible to sustain but problematic for his stats regardless. His K/BB has actually improved a bit, from 1.8 to 2. But for Wilson, the high walk totals are now leading to runners being pushed in via hits that didn’t fall in May.
Wilson can count on his defense behind him. He can count on the marine layer in Anaheim. He can count on the BABIP normalizing a bit in the coming weeks. Yet Wilson remains a problematic starter because his walk rate has never really improved for a lasting period of time. It sank to 3.0 (per 9 innings) last season, his best as a starter, but it’s hovered around 4 otherwise. Wilson’s FIP, according to Fangraphs, stands at 3.84. With good defense, he’ll likely be able to keep his ERA lower than the FIP, but I wouldn’t expect it to return to its sub-3.00 levels. However, with a high strikeout rate and a home run rate sure to deflate back to its typical levels of excellence, Wilson’s slide will slow and then stop, settling into a run of above-average if unspectacular work. Wilson was a little bit lucky in Texas, very lucky for 3 months in Los Angeles, and very unlucky during the last few weeks. It happens, these swings from dominance to ineptitude, and a deeper understanding of the factors behind pitching statistics help demonstrate that Wilson isn’t doomed to be another Tim Belcher-level calamity for the Angels. He’s a good pitcher with a big curve that misses bats and a usual avoidance of Barry Zito’s propensity to serve up home run balls. While the Angels cannot roll into the playoffs with a semblance of confidence without either Greinke or Haren delivering strong games, Wilson gives them a #3 type who should show his true form before the season’s end.