It was a decidedly atypical home game in terms of length (2:09, the fastest-played game at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington since May 29th, 2006), and the starkest possible contrast against the previous evening's unaesthetically pleasing slugfest, but the outcome wasn't all that shocking. Zach Greinke vs. Rangers Pitcher X isn't quite the lopsided matchup that it was 12 months ago, particularly given the elevated performance of the Rangers' starting rotation as a whole, and as clichéd as it sounds, there isn't a component of that rotation I feel more confident in right now than C.J. Wilson.
About two and a half months ago, when the C.J.-as-a-starter debate was raging in all its fury, I quietly noted that the problem with Wilson was not lackluster projection on a per-inning basis, and thus far this assertion has held up. After last night's 114-pitch complete game (9.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K), Wilson's fielding-independent ERA sits at a healthy 3.12 over six starts and 41.2 innings, which is clearly ace-caliber performance; of course, it's also significantly influenced by the fact that he hasn't yielded a single home run to date, which is an anomaly even with his extremely strong ground ball-inducing tendencies, so normalizing his homer-per-fly ball rate brings him closer to the No. 2-type pitcher that many of us were hoping he could become before the season.
Of course, Wilson's micro-level performance has not been immaculate, and this was also further evidenced last night. While the effects of his somewhat below-average strikeout and swinging-strike rates are mitigated by his greatest strength (again, inducing ground balls nearly 60 percent of the time, which is just spectacular), one of the few things Wilson has struggled at has been working ahead in the count and consistently putting himself in a position to succeed; according to ESPN.com's Inside Edge scouting service, Wilson's first-pitch strike rate of 52 percent is the 10th-worst mark among 114 qualifying starting pitchers, and this trend repeated itself last night against the Royals with a feeble first-pitch strike rate of just 41 percent against a major league average of 58 percent.
Looking a little closer at the data, however, one finds that Wilson has excelled relative to his peers as far as averting "well-hit" balls, which is borne out by his career-low 14.3 percent opponents' line drive rate. Why this is, I'm not completely certain, but there's strong circumstantial evidence pointing to Wilson's cutter -- which he threw 24 times last night, according to Pitch f/x -- as the proximate cause. Of those same 114 qualifying pitchers, only three -- Wilson, John Danks and Jon Lester -- are American League left-handers who throw the cutter at least 15 percent of the time, and all three are among the league's best in terms of avoiding well-hit balls.
The educated guess here -- or, looking at it another way, the complete shot in the dark -- is that Junior Circuit hitters have an especially difficult time making quality contact against left-handed cut fastballs, perhaps owing in part to the rarity of the pitch. Perhaps this phenomenon's life expectancy is finite, and perhaps the time will arrive when Wilson will simply have to boost his strikeout rates in order to maintain high-level performance. Right now, though, there's very little to complain about, and while it's obviously too soon to begin seriously contemplating his post-'11 future in baseball, it's not too soon to begin wondering about where his trade/contractual value may lie in the not-so-distant future.