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Can C.J. Wilson be good again?

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Time is not on C.J. Wilson’s side. He’s at that age (34) where most baseball players are on the definite downward trend. But, the Angels don’t need him to be an ace. They need a solid veteran pitcher who they can rely on to give them a chance to win every five games, not be lights out every time. Is that too much to ask for someone getting paid $18 million? It might not be fair to evaluate him on what he’s getting paid, after all it’s not his fault the team decided to pay him increasing amounts for years of expected decline. Examining what went wrong for him last year and trends for similar pitches we should still be able to expect a competent middle to back of the rotation starter.

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Last season Wilson tanked hard. He threw the fewest number of innings in his career as a starter (he began in Texas as a reliever) and posted career highs in WHIP, ERA, H9, FIP and BB9 – he had worse marks when he was a reliever but not since becoming a starter. His control has never been a strong suit but he’s found a way to compete and win despite never being known to pitch deep into a lot of games, and he’s a lefty.

Lefty’s have a reputation for pitching successfully well after they’ve lost their best stuff. Usually resorting to being crafty and keeping hitters off balance while eating away at the corners, think of Jamie Moyer. C.J. has never been that sort of pitcher though and to embark on that path would be quite the reversal in style and ability.

In order to be effective in 2015, Wilson will have to find a new recipe for success. He is well known for a good work ethic and being a driven competitor. Aside from his abysmal across the board number last year a few things stand out.

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Wilson throws five pitches, six if you want to count his seldom seen knuckleball. In studying what he threw and what the results were, I found that his velocity was right in line with his career norms. He did however throw far more curveballs and changeups while decreasing his number of cutters and sliders. His curve seemed to be the biggest culprit to his decline. All the other pitches were right in line with being as effective as they’ve always been over his career. According to Fangraphs, his curve was worth -5.0 runs from average. His fastball was also at a slight negative for the first time in his career despite maintaining an average velocity 90.6 MPH compared to 90.9 in 2013.

The easy to explain reason for his decline last year comes down to command. His WHIP testifies to that with 2014 measuring out at 1.446. Prior to last year his highest WHIP was 1.344 in 2012. That year he was exactly average with an ERA+ of 100. Last season he was a whopping 19% below average with an ERA+ of 81. Beyond just walking batters his less effective fastball and curveball were due to leaving to many pitches over the heart of the plate.

Oct 5, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson (33) prepares to deliver a pitch in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals during game three of the 2014 ALDS baseball playoff game at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For C.J. to regain his form as an at least average starter he’ll have to find a way to get back some of his consistency in command. Whether or not he can do that at age 34 is another question. The good news for him is that his velocity is still there, possibly in part because he spent his early years as a reliever and has far fewer innings than most starters his age, he’s accumulated 1298.1 innings. Compare that to Jon Lester who just signed for $155 million and has thrown more almost exactly 300 innings more.

2015 will be the season that determines C.J. Wilsons future. If he get’s off to a rocky start he may well lose his rotation spot to one of the Angels many young pitching candidates. Possibly going back to a bullpen role for a bit, maybe a trade would happen if the Angels ate a majority of his remaining contract or perhaps if he fails badly enough a straight up release could happen. With a rotation spot nearly assured to begin the season his fate is in his own hands and by all reason he should have the stuff to hold onto it if he can find a way to throw a few more strikes.

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