My name is Josh, and I’m a C.J. skeptic.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a cynic. Back in spring 2010, when the Rangers first announced that they were going to give C.J. Wilson a chance to break into the starting rotation, I wasn’t against the idea. As I noted at the time, Wilson’s talent and tenacity were evident, and completely justified the shot Texas was giving him.
After all, a solid back-of-the-rotation starter is – as was much-discussed in regards to the pre-season’s Neftali Feliz Decision™ – generally worth more to a team than a closer (or, as in Wilson’s case, a set-up man). So while my skepticism lingered throughout Wilson’s impressive spring training performance, when the Rangers announced that he had, in fact, secured a spot in the rotation, I didn’t have a problem with it. I just figured the value added would be relatively negligible.
I was wrong, of course. Wilson was arguably the Rangers’ best pitcher in 2010.* In fact, you could argue that Wilson was one of the top 10 pitchers in the American League in 2010:
+Among 43 qualified AL starters, except for bWAR, for which I did not try to establish qualifications.
*Posterisk: For the statistically inclined, the argument primarily centers on how we measure a pitcher’s value. If we go with the FanGraphs approach, then it’s fairly clear Cliff Lee was Texas’ best starter during his time with the club – but Lee, of course, only had 15 starts with the Rangers. Between Colby Lewis and Wilson, there are plenty of grounds for debate. If forced to choose, I’d go with Lewis – but then, hey, I’m a C.J. skeptic.
No matter how you slice the numbers, Wilson provided markedly more value than even the best closer could rack up in a single season. And while Wilson did seem to hit a September speed bump, he defied conclusions that he’d run out of gas in October, posting good-to-great performances in three of his four postseason starts.
You might think that, having acknowledged Wilson’s impressive 2010, I’d have entered recovery from my C.J. skepticism. But no: it’s a tenacious habit. Heading into the spring, I fully expected Wilson to pitch well again in 2011 – but I didn’t anticipate quite the same results. I looked forward to more than back-of-the-rotation performance, granted, but not top-10-in-the-AL numbers.
Denial, Josh, is not just a river in northern Sudan.
It’s not that I don’t believe in Wilson’s stuff, or his physical conditioning, or his mental preparation. When he tells the press, “I prepare a lot better than anybody else does, pitching-wise, in the American League,” I lend the claim a lot of credence. But scattered among the terrific 2010 numbers were at least a couple red flags.
First, Wilson’s batting average (against) on balls in play (BABIP). This stat doesn’t include home runs – or, obviously, strike outs, walks, or other non-batted-ball events. Since 1994, the AL average BABIP has been .300; in 2010, Rangers starters’ mean BABIP was .286, which was eight points below the AL average of .294:
In 2010, Wilson’s BABIP was .266; that mark derived largely from a platoon split: his BABIP was .282 versus right-handed batters (RHB), and .202 against left-handed batters (LHB).
Now, I’m not going to tell you that pitchers have no control over their BABIP. They do. I’m also not going to tell you that a platoon split like Wilson’s doesn’t reflect an underlying differential success in pitching to same-handed batters relative to opposite-handed opponents. Given Wilson’s track record, it probably does.
But. From 1994 (after BABIP spiked upward across baseball) through last season, I found 36 AL southpaws in the FanGraphs database* who racked up at least 50 decisions. One of them – Barry Zito – posted a BABIP below Wilson’s 2010 mark, and Zito’s been the subject of much sabermetric discussion for precisely that reason. Only two others (Jarrod Washburn and Jamie Moyer) had BABIP’s below .280; five more had BABIP’s below .290, and 11 more came in under the .300 AL average over the same time period. That’s 19 of 36, or 53 percent; an exercise in graphing the differences between the pitchers’ BABIP and that average yielded the skeleton of a bell curve.
*Posterisk: FanGraphs and Baseball Reference calculate pitchers’ BABIP a bit differently, which is why the former has Zito at .266 lifetime, and the latter at .272 – but this still nicely frames the issue.
Let me be clear about what that doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that C.J. Wilson’s BABIP will inevitably wind up at or near .300 in 2011. It’s doesn’t mean that Wilson isn’t capable of posting markedly sub-.300 BABIPs this season or in the future. Given his stuff and his preparation, there’s no reason to believe Wilson’s not destined to be a member of the 50-odd percent of left-handed AL pitchers who, in future analyses, will have long-term BABIP’s less than league average. At the same time, though, outside of Wilson’s groundball to flyball ratio (1.47 in 2010, good for 13th among the 43 qualified AL starters), there’s simply not sufficient data to justify strong belief that Wilson can maintain a sub-.280 BABIP over the long haul.
Through yesterday’s game against the Royals, Wilson’s BABIP for 2011 is .340; versus RHB, it’s .333, and it’s .364 versus LHB. It’s not because he’s suddenly a bad pitcher, though I suppose it’s worth noting that Wilson’s been fighting off the lingering effects of a spring hamstring injury. Even more importantly, though, we’re talking 5 starts and 33 innings – something like 15 percent of what Wilson is expected to post this season. Again, that’s not enough data to draw any conclusions worth drawing.
So, the first red flag’s BABIP. The second is a combo: Wilson’s ability to induce strikeouts, stacked against his proclivity to issue bases on balls and hit batters. Wilson struck out exactly 20 percent of the batters he faced in 2010; that was 15th among 43 qualified AL starters. Not great, but not bad at all. Unfortunately, he also walked or hit just more than 12 percent of the batters he faced, which was dead last among the group. As a result, Wilson was only 28th in terms of the percentage difference between whiffs and free passes.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. In his first three games of the 2011 season, Wilson struck out 6 of 25 while walking 2; 2 of 29 while walking 2; and 4 of 29 while walking 3. That’s pretty bad news: 14.5 percent strikeouts versus 8.4 percent walks. But in his last two outings, Wilson’s struck out 9 of 30 and 10 of 29, while walking just 1 in each start. I definitely don’t want to make too much out of two games – but friends, them’s Lee-like apples. (According to Baseball Reference, by the way, Lee has a career BABIP of .298, with a reverse split: .295 versus RHB, and .307 versus LHB.)
For the season, Wilson stands at 21.8% of batters struck out, and 6.3% of batters walked. (He hasn’t hit anyone. Yet.) The difference between those two proportions would have placed Wilson 4th among qualified AL starters in 2010. That’s a lot better than 28th.
Can Wilson keep it up? I don’t know, but I also can’t help it: I’m C.J. skeptical. If anything will send me into recovery from that skepticism, though, it’s the extension of his last couple performances, regardless of the number of runs (or home runs) the Royals hit yesterday. (And that Wilson himself was dissatisfied with his pitching yesterday can only be a good thing, right?) Working around some tough-luck hits (and home runs) by striking out more batters, and walking fewer? That’s the most certain way Wilson can avoid being fodder for luck dragons.
A little over a month ago, Joey wrote an incisive (and concise) piece about why the Rangers haven’t yet signed C.J. Wilson to an extension. His analysis hinged on a dollar-per-WAR model, and it neatly summarizes the issues that Texas is facing, when it comes to making a decision on how much the 30-year old Wilson is worth over the next four to six years. I can’t blame the Rangers for being C.J. skeptics themselves, even after throwing in what will inevitably be dubbed “intangibles.” Still, if Wilson’s last two outings are truly signs and portents, then I imagine Jon Daniels and the rest of the front office will join me in doing a Texas Twelve-Step with our C.J. skepticism.
Then we can move on to Derek Holland.