Monday, March 28, 2011
Not for lack of trying, but the Rangers now find themselves trying to defend a league championship with a rotation that finds at the top a guy just one year removed from being a full-time relief pitcher, and just two seasons removed from an absolutely disastrous year as the team's full-time closer. That makes C.J. Wilson a pretty obvious choice for the Rangers' "X Factor" for 2011.
Wilson responded brilliantly to his conversion back to a starter (about three-quarters of his minor league appearances were starts), especially by traditional methods, going 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 204 innings across 33 starts. But there are reasons to question whether that kind of performance can be repeated.
Wilson's strikeout rate dropped precipitously, as you might guess -- falling from 10.26 Ks per 9 to 7.5 as his innings per appearance jumped from almost exactly 1 to over 6 -- but you might expect at least a slight increase in control to go along with that, right? That is, if you're not striking out as many because you can't afford to simply throw every pitch as hard as you can (and his average fastball dropped by almost 3 miles per hour from 2009 to 2010), you'd think you'd have more of a say in where those pitches go, and give up fewer walks. But that didn't happen for Wilson; his walk rate actually climbed a bit, from 3.91 in '09 to 4.10 in '10. The combination resulted in the sixth-worst K/BB rate (1.83) of any qualifying pitcher in the AL, well below the league average for starters of 2.17.
Wilson was successful nonetheless, posting a 3.56 FIP that isn't terribly out of line with his ERA, but did it by limiting home runs, permitting only ten of them in his 204 innings. His xFIP of 4.20 (higher than the 2010 AL average ERA of 4.14, in this new pitcher-happy world) suggested he was probably getting pretty lucky on that front, though, and that several more of the fly balls he permitted should have left the yard. So if he's going to actually take his place as the ace of a contending team, one would think that at least one of these things should have to improve: he starts striking out more, starts walking less, and/or starts getting more ground balls.
I'm rooting for Wilson; he's a great Twitterer, and he's proving my "starter >> reliever" credo. And frankly, the Rangers, with the underappreciated Colby Lewis, the promising Derek Holland and easily the best offense in the division, will probably be at least competitive whether Wilson comes in at 3.00 or 4;50. But a repeat performance from Wilson would sure help, and it seems likely that if he's going to repeat his 2010, something's going to have to change.