It's not often the case (OK, it has never been the case before today) that a player signs for nearly $80 million and he's not even the biggest free agent signing of the day for his team. But that's the situation left-hander C.J. Wilson happily finds himself in after agreeing to a five-year, $77.5 million deal to leave the Rangers for the division rival Angels. With Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana already in the fold, L.A. might just have the best starting rotation in the game.
A former fifth-round pick who came up through the minors as a starter but pitched out of the bullpen in the majors until two years ago, Wilson turned in a quality first season as a starter in 2010 and then performed like an ace in 2011. He struck out 7.5 batters per nine innings, issued 4.1 BB/9 and had a 3.56 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 204 innings in his first go-around as a starter, and then whiffed 8.3 per nine, walked 3 per nine and compiled a 3.24 FIP in 223.1 innings this past year. As noted in August, Wilson's improvement was the product of getting more swings from right-handed hitters on cutters and sliders thrown out of the zone. Righties had a .333 on-base percentage against Wilson in 2010, but just a .296 OBP in 2011.
Another key to Wilson's game is his tendency to keep the ball down. The lefty has a 49.4 percent ground ball rate since 2010, versus the 45 percent average for starters. He prefers to hammer hitters low in the zone instead of above the belt:
Wilson has thrown just 23 percent of his pitches to the upper third of the zone over the past two years, compared to the 28 percent average for starters. His percentage of low pitches was 44 percent, well above the 39 percent average. And, as Wilson's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location shows, he's at his best when he stays low on the zone:
As a starter, Wilson has allowed a .419 slugging percentage on high pitches, a .391 slugging percentage on middle pitches, and a .245 slugging percentage on low pitches. Keeping the ball low allowed Wilson to serve up just 0.5 HR/9 despite pitching in a park that increases home runs hit by left-handed batters by 19 percent and 14 percent for right-handed hitters. Angel Stadium is much more forgiving, with a 90 park factor for lefty homers and a 93 park factor for right-handed HR.
Wilson might not have one particular skill that stands out, but his blend of punch outs, ground balls and passable control has made him one of the better starters in the game since 2010. Wilson ranks 10th in WAR over that time frame, according to Baseball-Reference, sandwiched between Jon Lester and Gio Gonzalez. And, unlike most free agent starters, the 31-year-old's arm doesn't have a ton of mileage on it due to his time spent in relief (he has thrown 708 regular-season innings in the majors, and 52.1 during the playoffs). The Hardball Times' Oliver projects Wilson as a 3.8 WAR pitcher in 2012. If we apply the same aging and salary inflation assumptions made in the Pujols post, then Wilson would be worth about $76 million during the life of his contract, or nearly a perfect match to what he'll be paid.
Considering the substantial upgrade that Wilson provides over the likes of Jerome Williams, Garrett Richards or Brad Mills and the boost to L.A.'s playoff odds that those added wins to the roster provide, this move looks solid for Jerry Dipoto and company.