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.
There are plenty of elements of Wilson’s game that would scare teams off other than his supposed ability to perform in the clutch.
According to ESPN’s Keith Law:
His slider is his most effective pitch, a low-80s offering with good tilt that hitters hit into the ground when they don’t swing over it, and he’ll throw it down and away to a left-handed hitter or throw it at the back foot of a right-handed one. His weakness is fringy fastball command. He throws strikes with his heater but fails to locate it within the zone.
A breakdown of his individual pitch results this past season echo Law’s analysis and indicate 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, which is staggeringly low. Over the last two seasons, only Trevor Cahill has had a fewer percentage of swings on pitches. The same holds true for pitches that he puts in the strike zone. Over the last two seasons, only Doug Fister has had a fewer percentage of opposing batters swing at pitches in the zone
That’s a lot of called strikes.
Whether or not this is a skill that’s actually repeatable is a debate. This data has only been collected for a short time, and while talented pitchers like Cahill, Tom Glavine, Derek Lowe have had two seasons in which they’ve been able to put up low swing in zone numbers, there are some not as talented pitchers too, like Barry Zito, that fall into the same category. The majority of high called strike seasons though, 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 a great many years.
A five year contract worth $77.5 million anticipates 13 wins above replacement over the length of the contract. And while Wilson shouldn’t have any difficulty overcoming that hurdle based on his first two seasons as a starter, I do have a concern that we’ll see a more dramatic drop off than would perhaps be anticipated of a typical starter of his stature, based on his method of success in 2010 and 2011.