C.J. Wilson’s debut as a starting pitcher against Toronto yesterday could not have gone much better. Wilson threw 7 shutout innings, only allowing 5 hits, while striking out a remarkable 9 batters and only walking 2. Wilson hadn’t started a game in the major leagues since 2005 and had never thrown more than 6 innings in the majors.
Wilson performed very well in a relief role last season, putting up a crazy 10.26 K/9 and a 2.81 FIP/3.25 xFIP, worth 2.0 wins above replacement in a mere 73.2 innings. That kind of performance suggests that Wilson could be a serviceable starter, if not a good one, based on the idea that relievers typically perform about one run worse per nine innings in a starting pitcher’s role. That’s because when relievers are only throwing in one or two inning bursts, they’re able to turn up the heat more often, but more importantly, they only go through the lineup one time. The other question with relievers shifting to a starting role is often their platoon splits, and Wilson’s career platoon splits are heavy, as his career FIP and xFIP against right handed batters are 1.2 runs and 0.9 runs higher respectively.
So, let’s take a look at three things from Wilson’s first start. First of all – Wilson’s stuff. His velocity was down from an average fastball of 93.1 to 89.9. The velocity of most of his secondary stuff fell by a similar rate, except for his curveball, which fell from 81 MPH last season to 74 MPH on Thursday. His curveball also had a much sharper horizontal break, up to -4.3 inches from -2.8 career and -2.1 last season. It didn’t draw any swinging strikes, but 3 of the 4 he threw were strikes. All of his other stuff was generating swinging strikes, as his fastballs (four- and two-seamers combined) generated 8 swinging strikes in 62 pitches (12.9%), and his changeup and slider combined to draw 7 swinging strikes in 30 pitches (23.3%). Overall, this led to an excellent 15.3% swinging strike rate, slightly better than Rich Harden’s league leading 15.1% rate last season. Despite the drop in velocity, Wilson’s stuff was very effective.
Secondly, did his results change based on which time the Jays were going through their order? The first time through the order, the Jays only had two runners reach base – a single by leadoff hitter Mike McCoy and a walk issued to Edwin Encarnacion. The first 9 batters faced by Wilson went 1-8 with two strikeouts and the walk. The final 18 performed slightly better, but not greatly so. They went 4/17 (.222) with a walk, a double, and seven more strikeouts. Overall, Wilson just looked great throughout the whole start.
The final question – how did the left-hander fare against the Jays’ righties? The right-handed batters he faced – McCoy, Jose Bautista, Vernon Wells, Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez, and Jose Molina – were 4-16, with two walks, five strikeouts, a double, and one double play. The lefties – Lind, Overbay, and Snider – were 1/9 with four strikeouts and a double. Wilson was very effective against hitters of each hand, and although right handers were more effective than lefties, he still managed to shut them down. That will be key as the season continues, as he will likely face lineups loaded with right handed batters, based on his career splits.
Overall, it was a very encouraging start for both Wilson and the Rangers. It wasn’t against one of the better offenses in the league, but it still looks like Wilson will be here to stay as a starter in the major leagues. He will be a key to a Rangers team hoping to break the Angels’ dominance in the AL West.
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