Updated: Mystery Team Not Revealed

Earlier today we learned that a mystery team had offered free agent starting pitcher C.J. Wilson a six year contract. Jim Duquette now informs us that the mystery team is in fact the Washington Nationals.

Last off season we saw the Nationals surprise a lot of people by offering the type of money normally reserved for the best players in baseball to one of the best players available on the free agent market. There’s normally a big difference between those two classifications. And that’s why the team still owes Jayson Werth $114 million for the next six years, after the outfielder provided only 2.5 wins above replacement in his first season as a member of the Nationals. Washington would be making a similar mistake if this rumour is true and they are going all in on C.J. Wilson.

Updated: Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore has spoken with three sources with the Nationals who all deny a six year offer for C.J. Wilson. Such are baseball’s winter meetings I suppose.

We know what Wilson wants. According to Jon Heyman, it’s six years and $120 million, which would be the 22nd highest contract ever handed out in baseball history.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much by suggesting that the greatest proof of the divide between front offices and talent evaluators in baseball occurred this past post season when journalists quoted scouts ahead of every C.J. Wilson playoff start claiming that millions of dollars were on the line with every pitch. I firmly believed that Wilson’s less than ideal post season wouldn’t scare teams away nearly as much as his reported asking price.

As you may have gathered from Jon Heyman’s aside at the end of his tweet last week, Wilson isn’t represented by Scott Boras. However, the ambition to get paid and connection with the Washington Nationals seems to be following a very Borasian approach. And much like Werth, who is represented by Boras, such a deal would represent an incredible over payment.

Looking at a breakdown of Wilson’s individual pitch results from this past season indicates rather average stuff, which is surprising given his startlingly good overall numbers since becoming a starting pitcher in 2010. Only eight other pitchers have a higher fWAR over that time period.

You might think this is merely the result of  a high ground ball rate and the somewhat under appreciated infield defense that the Rangers boast with (from left to right) Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland. However, Michael Young’s 1370 innings at third base in 2010 throws something of a wrench into this theory. Besides, his opposition’s BABIP is only slightly below average and FanGraphs’ pitching wins above replacement is based on a player’s fielding independent pitching numbers, not ERA or total runs allowed.

I wonder if what Keith Law refers to as Wilson’s “fringy fastball command” has been something of a blessing in disguise. To this point, the danger from his inability to locate in the zone hasn’t caught up with him. Instead it’s kept batters guessing. How else to explain his pedestrian numbers at almost everything he does? Everything other than the rate at which batters swing at his pitches in the strike zone, which is staggeringly low. Over the last two seasons, only Doug Fister has had a fewer percentage of swings on pitches that he’s put in the zone. That’s a lot of called strikes.

It appears as though this skill is somewhat repeatable, with talented pitchers like Trevor Cahill, Tom Glavine, Derek Lowe and somewhat untalented pitchers too, like Barry Zito among those able to maintain a low swing rate at pitches in the zone for at least a couple of seasons. However, the majority of high called strike seasons appear to be one offs.

Even if it is a skill and not the result of more random occurrences, it’s certainly not a skill in which I’d be willing to invest in for six years, let alone for $120 million dollars over that period. Yet, this seems to be the modus operandi of the Washington Nationals. Why buy the best when you can buy the best available at the same price?

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