For the last three-plus seasons, C.J. Wilson has done everything that he possibly can to infuriate, enrage and baffle Angels fans. In 2012, he was very good for the first half of the season, then practically useless for the remainder of the year. In 2013, he was good all year. In 2014, his starts led to fans being hospitalized for severe cases of heartburn and then proceeded to last 2/3 of an inning in the ALDS before Mike Scioscia decided that he had seen enough. At this point, in Wilson’s fourth year in Anaheim, I feel that it is safe to say that there are very few Angels fans who would actually admit to being totally and completely comfortable whenever C.J. is on the mound. Admit it, person reading this article; you have a bottle of Tums specifically labeled “C.J. Wilson emergency kit,” Don’t you?
That’s OK, I completely understand. But as of now, in 2015, C.J. is doing everything he can to be the kind of pitcher that the Angels were expecting to get when they signed him to a five-year $72.5M deal before the 2012 season. Currently, he is sporting a nifty 2.70 ERA to go along with his unlucky 1-2 record. Could he be in for a little bit of regression going forward? Sure, it’s possible. His FIP is 3.27 and his xFIP is an even more unsightly 4.25. He is also striking out fewer hitters than ever before. As a starter, his K% has ranged from 19.8% last year to 22.5% in 2011. So far this season, he is sitting at 16.7%. That, of course, has a chance to go up being that he is only six starts into this campaign. But, then again, so does his ERA.
But more importantly – and more pertinent to this post because who really cares about 2013 and before since most people only remember him being sooooooo bad in 2014 – what is C.J. doing differently this year compared to last year that is allowing him to keep runs off the board while not being an overly dominant starting pitcher? Let’s start with some splits from last year to see how bad C.J. was getting knocked around.
Sweet Jesus, righties pummeled C.J. On the flipside, C.J. owns lefties, and probably would have owned them even more if he would have adhered more to his #ThrowStrikes mantra. His walk-rate last year was a career-worst 11.2%, and was widely regarded to be the reason why C.J. was as ineffective as he was in 2014. But pitching, like real estate, is all about location, location, location. And Wilson’s locating ability in 2014, was, well, let’s just say it wasn’t all that great.
Like I said before, C.J. owns lefties. He’s able to exploit them low and away as well as any pitcher in baseball. Basically, we’re going to move along because there is nothing more to see here.
C.J. is at his best when he lives low in the strike zone. His fastball, once sitting in the 95 MPH range, now sits around 90. He can occasionally hump it up in to the 92-93 range, but that’s only on occasion.
The problem with C.J.’s command is that, while he lives low in the zone, he tends to miss low in the zone…a lot. But, if you’re going to miss, miss low, right? Right. But don’t miss low so often that you are putting runners on base all the time and are then forced to throw 90 MPH meatballs over the heart of the plate. Don’t do that. Not even a little bit. And that was the problem last season for C.J.. Something in his delivery was off and was causing him to miss too low. This led to a gaggle of baserunners via the walk, forcing C.J. to be more brash and bring pitches up to avoid further walks. And when that happens it usually spells doom for a pitcher like C.J. Wilson who doesn’t have any real dynamite pitch other than his slider, but he can’t throw his slider every pitch.
So where is the change this season? Let’s look at the splits for this year so far before getting to more charts.
Surprise surprise, C.J. still owns lefties. Moving on. So far this season, righties aren’t having their way with C.J. the same way that they did last year, even with below average strikeout rates. Has to be something in the way he’s locating. Let’s take a look. Cue the charts.
C.J. owns lefties. Moving along, nothing to see here.
Enough of a difference between 2014 and 2015 to make a big difference in his performance. He is still living low in the zone, which is good, but he is not missing low in the zone as much as he was in 2014. And the byproduct of that is C.J. doesn’t have to bring pitches up and towards the middle to ensure that he will be in the strike zone. And, unless you are Mike Trout, most hitters generally have trouble getting lift on pitches low in the zone. And when they do get lift on those pitches they are usually harmless fly ball outs. And his batted ball data reflects that.
Groundball rates better than flyball rates? Check. Medium contact better than hard contact? Check. And, his walk-rate this season is vastly improved over his wild 2014 season, checking in at a would be career-best 6.2%.
C.J. Wilson has never lacked the ability to be a very good starting pitcher. He’s not an Ace pitcher, and he’s barely a number-two starter. But he has enough pitching smarts and plenty of movement on all of his pitches that fans should expect seasons more in line with 2013 than 2014. And so far this season, he is trying to erase the memory of a forgettable 2014 campaign. And he is doing it by finally living up to the #ThrowStrikes slogan that he popularized in 2012. Hey, better late than never, I guess.