When He Was Young: C.J. Wilson

On December 8th the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim) signed both Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. That very day I recounted Albert’s journey from the draft to the majors and took a look at a couple of scouting reports before he made his big league debut.

Today, I’m going to do the same with LHP C.J. Wilson. Since he spent five seasons in the minors (as opposed to Albert’s one) – we have a lot more data to examine and a longer more traditional development path to follow. At the end of our trek we should have a better idea of whether or not the Angels were wise to sign Wilson to the 5-year, $75 million contract that they did.

On April 2nd, 2001 CJ’s new teammate, one Albert Pujols, was making his major league debut with the Cardinals at the tender age of 21. Wilson, just 20 at the time, was playing both ways for Loyola Marymount University* as a college junior. With the Lions that season he threw 80.2 innings with a 6.95 ERA and allowed 106 hits and 53 walks while striking out 72. In short he was far from dominant on the mound. In the field he played OF and 1B while hitting 0.289/.392/.463 in 201 at bats.

*The university that Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble made famous.

In that June’s draft, the Texas Rangers selected C.J. Wilson in the 5th round (141st overall) based largely on the recommendation of one of their scouts, Tim Fortugno. Interesting side note is that the Philadelphia Phillies used their 5th round pick to take 1B Ryan Howard140th overall. As a result Howard and Wilson may be the best back to back 5th round picks in draft history, but that’s a topic and investigation for another day.

Wilson signed quickly and immediately made Fortugno – and subsequently the Rangers – look brilliant. C.J. started out with Pulaski in the Appalachian League (Rk) and was simply dominant. In 8 starts (37.2 IP) he had a 0.96 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 2.2 BB/9 and 11.7 SO/9. Obviously too advanced for that level the Rangers promoted him to the Savannah Sand Gnats in the South Atlantic League (A). He wasn’t quite as good but he more than held his own over 34.0 IP (5 GS) with a 3.18 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 2.4 BB/9 and 6.9 SO/9. There is no doubt that Wilson made a statement and Baseball America, among others, took notice.

In the 2002 Prospect Handbook BA ranked C.J. at #29 in their Rangers top-30 and included this in his profile:

He threw 91 mph as a pro after sitting at 89 for Loyola Marymount. He also has tight rotation on his curveball, feel for a changeup and the ability to throw strikes. He’s a superb athlete who’s extremely coachable.

He opened the 2002 season pitching in the Florida State League (A+) with Charlotte and took on several roles with the team. Wilson started 15 games and made 11 relief appearances one of which resulted in a save. The result was a 3.06 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9 and 6.5 SO/9 in 106.0 IP. His SO/BB was under 2.0 – 1.85 to be exact – but he continued to limit hits (7.3 H/9) and continued to keep the ball in the park (0.3 HR/9). While he wasn’t as dominant as he was in 2001, he still earned a promotion to Double-A and made 5 starts for the Tulsa Drillers. In 30.0 innings against Texas League batters he finished with a 1.80 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. His BB/9 at 3.6 essentially held steady but his strike out rate deteriorated further to 5.1 SO/9. Again he wasn’t nearly as dominant but he scored marks for handling the difficult jump to AA with aplomb.

Already on Baseball America’s radar from the previous season, they elevated him to #8 in their Rangers Top-30 and added a few gems to his write-up:

A student of the game, he keeps a notebook on opposing hitters now that he’s become a full-time pitcher … Wilson has above-average athleticism to go with his thirst for pitching knowledge. The Rangers laud his heart and focus.

By this point we had a pretty clear image of a pitcher who had the stuff to at least reach the majors, but if he was going to find success it was going to be the back of his intelligence and understanding his craft. At this point in his development, he made it into the 2003 edition of John Sickels’ The Baseball Prospect Book.

Statistically, the main warning sign is his K/BB ratio, which was not good last year, especially for a finesse pitcher.

Sickels’ gave him a grade of C+ at this point. In my opinion he underestimated Wilson’s arsenal/stuff but more importantly was missing the elements beyond the pitches he could throw. He was however absolutely correct that the declining SO/BB was a bit of a red flag. However from my standpoint that decline was mitigated by the fact that he moved through 4 levels in 2 years. As a cerebral pitcher it was logical to assume that the longer Wilson stayed at a level the better the results would be as he gathered more data on his opposition.

2003 saw Wilson’s return to the Texas League and he would spend the entire season there. The positives were that he dropped his BB/9 to 2.8 and upped his SO/9 to 6.5 giving him his best SO/BB since he was in the South Atlantic League. Unfortunately he allowed more hits (135) than innings pitched (123.0) for the first time in his career and gave up 11 HR after only allowing 8 in the previous two seasons combined. Either he had hit a wall which led to the 5.05 ERA and 1.41 WHIP or something was amiss. As it turns out he pitched most of the season with a sore elbow and had Tommy John surgery in August.

While he wouldn’t pitch at all in 2004, he was still ranked at #16 in their Rangers Top-30 heading into the “lost” season.

A student of the game, he studies hitters’ weaknesses and has a natural feel for exploiting them. The Rangers have been pleased with his rehab work, so it’s possible he could return sooner than expected.

Not surprisingly, given his 2003 season and the subsequent surgery, he dropped out of Sickels’ prospect book entirely and wouldn’t make another appearance in the following years.

C.J. was back on the mound in 2005 and made 4 tuneup starts with Bakersfield (A+). In those 13.2 IP he had a 3.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9 and 9.2 SO/9. All systems were go to resume his battles against Texas League hitters. His time with Tulsa (AA) resulted in a 4.43 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9 and 8.7 SO/9 in 44.2 IP over 12 starts. His H/9 jumped to a career high 10.3 and he gave up 7 HR indicating he was still getting his bearings but the stable walk rate and jump in SO rate was certainly encouraging. The Rangers then did something that absolutely drives me nuts, they promoted him to the majors skipping him over Triple-A while upping the competition ante. Predictably he was bad with Texas. He made 18 relief appearances and another 6 starts that led to a combined 6.94 ERA, 1.69 WHIP, 11.8 H/9, 3.4 BB/9 and 5.6 SO/9 in 48.0 IP.

All in all, despite being aggressively and unnecessarily pushed into major league action, Wilson’s 2005 season and return to game action was a success. Naturally his pitching acumen and work ethic weren’t impacted by the injury or time off, but he was throwing a tick or two harder and it wasn’t coming at the expense of his control. In short he was no longer the finesse pitcher that Sickels had labeled him.

He landed at #14 on the Rangers Top-30 in Baseball America’s 2006 Prospect Handbook and looked to have a major league ready arsenal.

Wilson has a 89-94 mph fastball that jumps out of his hand, and he also relies heavily upon an average 80-84 mph slider. He flashes a fading changeup and a mid-70s curveball but didn’t use either pitch much when he pitched in relief.

2006 would be the last of his minor league experience and even that was limited to 3.1 innings with Frisco (AA) and 11.0 more with Oklahoma (AAA). The rest of his time that season was spent in the Rangers bullpen, a spot he would occupy up through the 2009 season. In those 4 years he was generally above average but up and down as most relievers are:

  • 2006: 44.1 IP, 114 ERA+
  • 2007: 68.1 IP, 151 ERA+
  • 2008: 46.1 IP, 74 ERA+
  • 2009: 73.2 IP, 166 ERA+

In 2010 he was moved into the rotation and he took his career to another level. Between 2010 and 2011 he made 67 starts with a 3.14 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 3.5 BB/9 and 7.9 SO/9 in 427.1 IP. His ERA+ came in at 134 and 152 for those two seasons with his 2011 efforts ranking him 3rd in the AL behind only Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver.

The Angels put a lot of stock into two seasons and 67 starts but there is little doubt that C.J. Wilson has the stuff, and more importantly an advanced understanding of the “art” of pitching. His intelligence and understanding of how to approach each hitter he faces will serve him well as he ages. This aspect of his game will be further aided since he didn’t have to change leagues or divisions. Trading the offensive environment of the Ballpark in Arlington for the more pitcher friendly Angel Stadium of Anaheim isn’t going to hurt his bottom line either.

He’s not an ace, but he’s an excellent #2 or #3 and from my perspective, Anaheim got a bargain for $75 million. There is a good chance they are just as happy with his contract in 5 seasons as they are today.


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Tags: C.J. Wilson Los Angeles Angels Loyola Marymount University Texas Rangers

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