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October 28, 2010
It seems improbable that C.J. Wilson is starting Game Two of the 2010 World Series for the Rangers tonight against the Giants. That is not a slight against Wilson, who is a talented pitcher, but the number of relievers who became successful starters is not a high one. Wilson used to be a starting pitching prospect before a shift to the bullpen, and he kept the deep repertoire from his days as a starter—that is one reason why we should not have been surprised that, even early on, Wilson was able to make an impact in Texas' rotation.
Christopher John Wilson was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of Loyola Marymount University in the 2001 amateur entry draft. Wilson was a fifth-round selection, and played outfield, first base, started, and relieved during his time playing college ball; the first time he started exclusively was as a professional, when he split time between the Appalachian and Sally leagues.
Wilson whiffed 11.7 batters per nine in rookie ball with a K/BB of 5.4, so the Rangers bumped the 20-year-old to Single-A Savannah. The strikeouts vanished, with Wilson dropping to 6.9 per nine, though he kept his control in check with 2.4 walks per nine. Baseball America rated Wilson the 29th-best prospect in the Rangers organization heading into the 2002 season thanks to improved velocity and numbers from his college days, as well as his status as a "superb athlete" that was "extremely coachable" and "smart enough to incorporate what he learns in side work into games."
The Rangers pushed the southpaw to High-A Charlotte rather than let him repeat in the Sally, and though he added a full walk per nine to his numbers, he still performed well overall: 6.5 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9 thanks to the natural sink on his heater, and 106 innings pitched over 15 starts and 11 relief appearances. Given the number of quality pitches Wilson had at his disposal—his heavy fastball, a curve that had potential to be a plus pitch and a change he was working on—it's surprising Texas didn't let him dominate High-A before moving him up, but it had him pitch his final 30 innings of the year at Double-A.
Wilson made five starts, averaging six innings per contest, while striking out just 5.1 per nine and allowing 3.6 walks per nine. Thanks to the small sample, Wilson allowed just 23 hits over the 30 innings, which helped keep his ERA at the 1.80 mark when it should have been much higher given those peripherals. Texas realized Wilson had been pushed through the minors quickly and left him at Double-A to start the 2003 season.
Baseball America moved Wilson up to the eighth spot in the Texas organization for the 2003 season. His "thirst for pitching knowledge," which can be best summed up by his keeping of a notebook where he recorded opposing hitter's tendencies, as well as his desire to control the inside part of the plate with his fastball, helped get him noticed in the scouting community. Wilson was still a work in progress, though, as he had not fully developed his third pitch, and his curve occasionally acted more like a slurve that needed to be tighter.
These issues would show at Double-A Frisco, when Wilson posted an ERA of 5.05 over 123 innings. While he regained the punchouts he had lost upon his initial promotion to Double-A and even managed to cut into his walk rate, the luck on hits he had the year prior was nowhere to be found, as he allowed almost 10 hits per nine innings and saw his homer rate jump to 0.8 per nine. It turns out that Wilson needed Tommy John surgery, which had kept his velocity inconsistent throughout the up-and-down campaign, and his season ended in mid-August under the knife of Dr. Lewis Yocum.
In what was a surprising outcome given his elbow soreness and the eventual procedure, Wilson had been able to improve his control and command thanks to a tighter curve and a better changeup, which he mixed in more effectively than in the past. This gave the Rangers reason to be optimistic about Wilson when he returned from his ligament replacement.
It was a mixed bag for Wilson in 2005, as he came back strong from his surgery and rehab to strike out 8.8 batters per nine and give up 2.8 walks per nine over two minor-league levels (High- and Double-A) but was susceptible to the longball for the first time in his career (1.4 per nine) and was awful in his first trial at the big-league level. Texas used him in 24 games—six of them starts—for 48 innings. Wilson struck out a below-average number of hitters and posted a 1.7 K/BB, allowed a BABIP of .355, and stranded just 58 percent of his baserunners. Poor luck had a lot to do with things, as well as Texas's 26th-ranked defense, but Wilson had things to learn about pitching to big-league hitters, as evidenced by the paltry strikeout numbers.
Wilson would begin the 2006 season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, but once he came back he couldn't get things going. While the lefty struck out 8.8 batters per nine in his 16 games out of the bullpen, he walked 5.6 per nine and continued to give up homers at an alarming rate. He was optioned back to the minors on June 1, and after pitching well there was recalled in mid-July. Wilson was completely different from that point forward, as he retained a similar strikeout rate but finally displayed control at the major-league level with 2.2 walks per nine. He also dropped his homers per nine to just 0.7, with just a pair of bombs given up over his last 25 innings pitched.
Wilson would spend some time as the closer in Texas in 2007 after Eric Gagne was traded to the Red Sox, picking up 12 saves. More importantly, Wilson maintained his punchout rate and lowered his homer rate, which helped keep his ERA low despite the return of a high walk rate. His success in the role meant more chances to close games out over the next two seasons, which is why Wilson has 52 saves in 190 relief appearances over a three-season span. The added velocity he had on his fastball, which he used as his primary pitch over those seasons, also helped him keep his strikeouts up, including in 2009 when he struck out 10.3 per nine. Wilson also set a team record for the lowest home ERA (0.67) in Texas history, which shouldn't be a shock given how stingy the reliever was in terms of homers, Arlington's greatest enemy.
Though he relied primarily on his fastball in relief, Wilson dipped back into the deep reserve of pitches to shift back into the rotation. Wilson began to utilize his cutter more to mix things up and used a changeup, curve, and slider as well. The latter three were used to induce whiffs, while the fastball and cutter were meant to induce weak contact and ground balls.
Wilson was able to pull it off, posting an ERA of 3.35 as a starter over 204 innings pitched. He struck out 7.5 per nine, and while he walked 4.1 per nine, his ability to induce weak contact and grounders (1.5 GB/FB) kept the walks from hurting him. In addition, Wilson held left-handers to a line of .144/.224/.176. Right-handers, who have been an issue for Wilson in the past (though he held them to a 706 OPS against from 2007-09 out of the pen) were not a problem with the expanded pitch selection as he held them to just .236/.333/.346 (679 OPS).
His SIERA (4.18) says that he was worse than his ERA by a significant margin, but there are reasons to believe his performance was more legitimate than that number suggests. His defense played a significant role in his success, as Texas ranked sixth in Defensive Efficiency (70.5 percent of balls in play converted into outs, including 21 double plays for Wilson), but he also pitched in a park that favors hitters (specifically right-handers). SIERA doesn't take either of these items into account, and also can't measure just how hard (or soft) the contact on balls in play is, and Wilson, as has been mentioned multiple times, induces weak contact with his heavy two-seamer—3.35 is low for his ERA, but 4.18 is too high. The answer is somewhere in between, which means that Wilson is a fine option as a starting pitcher beyond 2010.
After a decade of failing to produce much in the way of impact starting pitchers—the highly-touted DVD trio (Thomas Diamond, Edinson Volquez, and John Danks) has done their best work elsewhere—it's good to see one hurler the Rangers have developed produce in the major leagues as Texas has shed its losing history in favor of a winning present. Moving Wilson to the rotaton was a huge risk, but it was also a success, and one of the major reasons Texas won the American League West and their first-ever AL pennant. He now has a chance to be one of the major reasons they bring home their first World Series title, and whether it turns out that way for the Rangers, the innings he gives them in the future as a starter will give them a better chance to win again than if he were still relegated to the bullpen.