C.J. Wilson has a unique approach to pitching. The Rangers’ southpaw is both “a math guy” and a student of biomechanics, and the melding of the two helps create a thought process that is as esoteric as it is analytical. There is certainly a method behind the madness, as the 29-year-old Loyola Marymount product has held opponents to a .206 BAA and a .306 SLG in his first season as a member of the Texas rotation. No American League starter has been better against left-handed hitters, who have gone just 9 for 97 against his slants. One negative is walks allowed, as his 60 free passes are the most in the league. Overall, Wilson is 8-5, with a 3.23 ERA in 19 starts.
David Laurila: You’re pretty numbers savvy. Did you read Moneyball?
C.J. Wilson: Yes, I read it when it first came out. I was pretty familiar with statistics already, because I’m a math guy and have always been interested in the different parts of the game. Growing up, I used to memorize batting averages and slugging percentages, and stuff like that, although I guess I never really thought about on-base percentage as much, as a team concept, until I read that book. As a hitter in college, I always took pride in having a really high on-base percentage. That was before it was in vogue, I guess.
DL: Did it impact the way you think as a pitcher?
CJW: No, not at all. My pitching thing has always been… the battle has been to stay healthy and wrangle my movement. I’ve always had so much movement on my pitches that it has been maybe difficult to command the ball as much as other guys.
DL: Do you use statistics to prepare for a game?
CJW: I look at scouting reports a lot. I’ll look online and see stats—I’ll look at guys and see trends. If a guy starts walking more often, it presents a dual effect, because it’s kind of like the better hitter you are, the fewer good pitches you’re going to get to hit, so then you can kind of just narrow down your strike zone. I used to call it the Barry Bonds effect, because it was like people had to work so hard to throw him strikes. His strike zone was so small that you couldn’t really nibble and get [strikes], but in turn that led to them being behind in the count more, being less likely to throw him a hittable strike. At that point, he either hits a home run or he walks.
I became really aware of that back then, when he was really on a tear in ‘01, ‘02, ’03, when I was coming through the minors. I started looking at that as an indicator when I would see other hitters around the league. If I was going to have to face a guy with a high on-base percentage, or a low on-base percentage, relative to his batting average, he’s either going to chase or not chase. That affects my strategy in terms of how I’m going to pitch him with two strikes, or whatever.
DL: How much does data influence your pitch selection?
CJW: I really am a super number cruncher and I use our video system, which is like a statistics video matrix where you can kind of narrow down where pitches are that you gave up hits on, or that you got strikeouts on, or whatever. I’ve noticed a ton of trends, for me personally, based on location of pitches and particular pitches that maybe goes against the grain a little bit sometimes. I do pitch to my own scouting reports at times.
DL: Did that change in any way when you moved from the bullpen to the rotation?
CJW: As a starter, you just do it less often, because you’re trying to minimize pitches so that you can throw more innings. As a closer, or whatever, you’re going for 0 percent; you’re pitching for 0 percent. I was always trying to pitch for 0 percent and pitch to the ultimate hole—my strength versus their weakness, my strongest point against their weakest point. As a starter, you just kind of take your strengths against whatever. You just stick with your strengths, which is a little bit different, because you don’t really have the luxury of nibbling or taking so much time.
DL: Do your strengths differ as a starter?
CJW: Yeah, they’re totally different; it’s weird. They’re completely different. As a reliever, I would throw harder, so effort-wise it was more adrenaline. I threw 95-96 and I would pound guys inside. I’d just force them to hit the ball. As a starter, I don’t have to do that as often, so I can use both sides of the plate and kind of take a little bit off and change speeds, and that’s created a whole different dynamic for how I throw. It’s like you go from the Billy Wagner model of hard fastball and then a breaking ball, trying to make guys swing and miss, to a Mike Mussina where it’s like a cutter on both sides, a sinker, a curveball, a changeup—all these different speeds of pitches—and keeping guys off balance overall.
DL: Is there ever a disconnect between you and your catchers because of the way you use data and approach pitching?
CJW: Not because of that. It’s more for me, because of the fact that I’m kind of newish at starting; I haven’t done it for about seven years, so it’s like a learning process all over again. I’m always trying to get the most out of myself, like I get really upset—I get really frustrated with myself when I walk guys. That’s the thing that is always the bane of my existence—the walk. I feel that if I can reverse that trend, it would improve my other numbers a lot. Despite that, all of my peripheral stats are pretty good to this point, relative to how people probably thought that I was going to transition as a starter.
DL: Do you pitch to contact as a starter more than you did as a reliever?
CJW: You know, I’ve never really liked that phrase, because I just throw to a zone. I can’t control if the hitter swings the bat or not. I’m looking at a particular guy, and let’s say that he’s a dead fastball hitter, inside. Well, I’m just going to throw him fastballs away, like over and over and over again. It’s not necessarily pitching to… I mean, yeah, he has a chance to hit that, if he compromises, but I don’t really think of it as pitching to contact as much as I consider it pitching to a zone, if that makes sense.
The thing is, I was a hitter my whole life. I didn’t really become a pitcher until I got drafted and so, for me, I still have that sort of hitter mentality of pitching against slugging percentage, like the low slugging percentages—controlling the bat head by keeping hitters off balance. That’s my No. 1 goal, keeping hitters off balance. It’s not pitching to contact, because to me that idea is so vague. You can throw the ball down the middle and people are going to whack it. That’s contact, but what does it even mean? It’s not good pitching; it’s really just throwing.
DL: To what extent can you control the movement on your pitches?
CJW: It depends on the situation I have with things like my blisters and calluses and all that stuff. And for me, my delivery is a constant work in process—I completely changed it in the offseason to make it easier on my arm and my body—so the better the delivery is, the more I can control anything. I can cut the ball and sink the ball—I throw a cutter and a sinker anyway, but then I can make my sinker go more down or more sideways, or whatever, if I’m really locked in with my delivery.
DL: If your ball is moving so much that you’re having trouble keeping it in the zone, what sort of adjustments do you make?
CJW: I just start throwing four-seamers. I just say, “OK, maybe what I need to do is use my other pitches to get my release point and targeting good.” Then when I use that other pitch I can use it almost like another breaking ball. When my sinker moves too much, I think of it as a slider to the point where I’ll use it as a two-strike pitch, as opposed to saying, “Oh, I’m going to throw this pitch on 2-0, even though I have no idea where it’s going to go.” I’ll throw the four-seamer, because I know where it’s going to go, and then I’ll throw the two-seamer to create some kind of vector. I think of pitching a lot differently than everybody else I talk to. I don’t know anybody who thinks about it the way I do about it.
DL: What is it that makes you unique?
CJW: I guess I feel that I’m sort a hodgepodge of various different pitches from other people that I’ve learned from, and different biomechanical stuff that I’ve picked up over the years. My whole life growing up I was a hitter, which is what I always really wanted to do, and I didn’t pitch until I was older, and as I transitioned from being a hitter in college to a pitcher in pro ball, I found that I had a much different outlook on things. A lot of that is based on somewhat of a scouting analysis of the hitters that I face. I feel that, based on how a hitter is built, or his stance in the box, there is going to be a weakness to where… like, he won’t be able to drive the ball over the fence if [the pitch] is in a certain location, or a certain speed, based on how he reacts. That’s the stuff that I try to pick up. A lot of guys feel that it is unnecessary to get to that level, to where you’re trying to figure out where a hitter’s A-swing is versus his B-swing, and stuff like that. That’s kind of something I’ve always worked on, even when I was younger.
Now, with video, we’re really able to archive whatever sort of statistical information it is that we want to compile and give us sort of a visual to it. It’s pretty interesting, but I guess that when I look at a hitter… I’ve talked to some pitchers about it before and they’re like, “I just sort of see what he swings at early in the count and I don’t throw that,” or “I see what kind of pitches he hits for home runs and I don’t throw that.” For me, I look at things like where he stands in the box. I might overcomplicate things at times, but I feel like it allows me to have a longer memory chain on each guy.
DL: It sounds like when you mentioned biomechanics, you were talking about your opponents’ mechanics rather than your own?
CJW: Well, that’s the thing, as well. On my mechanics, I’m physically limited to being a certain height and having a certain stride length and I have to basically just repeat my delivery within certain parameters. But every hitter that I face is a different size; every hitter that I face is a different hand speed, foot speed, tendency to swing at the first pitch or try to hit the ball to right field or try to hit the ball to left field. Every guy has a different swing. It’s very rare that you face a team where you have more than three guys with a similar enough approach to hitting that you can pitch them the same way if you’re really trying to get to the point of fully neutralizing their attack.
I’ve always felt that if I over-prepare, by over-analyzing, then when I get into the game, what I would revert to would be a step below over-analysis, which would still be analysis as opposed to just heaving the ball in there and hoping. I don’t believe in hope at all. Hope isn’t a very good strategy when you’re out there pitching and trying to get guys out.
DL: As a starter, you’re facing hitters multiple times in a game. Can you attack the same weaknesses in the same way, every at-bat?
CJW: It just depends on the quality of the hitter. You have different strata, statistically speaking. You have your just-kind-of-scraping-to-get-by .200-.230 hitters; then you have the .230 hitter with a lot of pop, where if you make a mistake he might hit it over the fence. Then you have your guys who are .250, .260, .270 hitters, and then you have your guys who are kind of .280-.300, then you have your guys who are .300-plus.
You’ll have a guy like Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau, who is a power-line-drive hitter, or a Derek Jeter who is a really-high-batting-average hitter, or Ichiro, who is high-batting-average because he has this foot-speed thing, and you have to pitch against the foot speed as well. A guy like Jason Giambi, it’s more like if you get him to hit the ball on the ground you did your job.
With Ichiro, that could be a hit and it could turn into a double, because of the stolen base thing. I factor that in as well and try to get Ichiro to hit the ball to a certain part of the field. I think about his swing and how it works as opposed to just saying, “Oh, I’m going to get him to hit the ball on the ground,” because he’s going to beat out a lot of stuff that he hits to the six hole. He’s going to beat out every single ball that the third baseman has to go to his left on; every ball.
DL: To what extent do you pitch to your team’s defensive strengths?
CJW: Based on what kind of stuff that I have, and the way that my ball moves, certain defenders are going to field the ball more often than not. I feel that a lot of times the defense is set around the hitters, like “this guy is a pull hitter,” but to me, the defenses could be set around the pitcher. For instance, a guy like me who has a heavy sinker and a cutter is going to force the ball to the corners of the field more; the ball is going to be hit more to the three hole and the six hole as opposed to up the middle. The ball doesn’t get hit up the middle on me a lot, unless it’s a complete rocket, so I prefer to have the fielders play in the hole on the left side. Having Elvis Andrus and Mike Young, who are really sure-handed, on the left side makes it easy for me. If one of those guys wasn’t sure-handed, it would complicate my strategy a lot more. Now I can just say, if a righty is up, “OK, if he hits a ground ball, I just want him to pull it.” That’s how I think about changing speeds on the baseball, or changing the different types of movement.
DL: Can you say a little more about biomechanics and the movement you get on your pitches?
CJW: A hard thing for some people to judge, and gauge, is how their anatomy is going to affect the flight of the ball. The reason why some guys are able to throw only one pitch, let’s say a slider or a curveball, but they can’t throw the other one, is all based on the ratio—in my opinion—of your finger length to your palm, and the width of your palm to the length of your fingers. If you’re able to grip the ball and you have medium-sized hands, then you have more flexibility because you can make the ball go sideways, because there is less deflection, distance-wise, from your same release point.
If you have really, really long hands, then it’s kind of like having more whip, so you might throw harder and make the ball spin more, but you‘re not going to be able to throw the big variety of pitches without some sort of visual deflection from a hitter. That’s why… Greg Maddux didn’t have very big hands, but he was able to make the ball move in every direction and it looked kind of the same coming out of his hand. That’s because he could be on almost the entirely different side of the ball, but his release point would never change.
DL: Had you been born 20 years earlier, would you be a different pitcher?
CJW: I wouldn’t have been a pitcher; I would have been a hitter. The damage that I did to my arm as a Little Leaguer, throwing too many breaking pitches, and stuff, would have been irreversible and I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through the Tommy John surgery that I had as a 22-year-old. I knew that I’d eventually need that, because my arm hurt all the time when I was growing up.
DL: I was referring more to the detailed information and video than wasn’t readily available until more recently.
CJW: It would have been the same; I just would have had a thicker notebook. I’ve always kept notes. Even when I was in the minor leagues, I kept these huge notebooks on every hitter where I drew their feet and drew their swing path. I had the four-colored pen, and all that stuff. The technology that we had in the minor leagues, when I was in A-ball, was probably like what everybody in the big leagues had 20 years before I got there. So, I was the same pitcher then that I am now, if that makes sense. Like I said, I don’t know any pitchers who think like I do.