Nobody seems to want to believe in C.J. Wilson. I haven't seen anybody suggest, "Yes, he's an ace! Give him $100 million!" Maybe it's the years he spent as a nondescript middle reliever, maybe it's the postseason performance (21 runs allowed in 28 innings in 2011), maybe its the Southern California surfer vibe and str8edgeracer Twitter handle.
In his two years in the Rangers rotation, he won 31 games with a 3.14 ERA, pitching 427 innings without missing a start. He's done that despite pitching in a tough home park -- his road ERA over those two seasons was 2.56. Over the past two seasons, the only starters with a better park-adjusted ERA are Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver. Wilson rates better than CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez or Cole Hamels.
So even if you grudgingly admit Wilson has been one of the game's top starters since 2010, that doesn't help us project his future -- and whether or not he'll be worth a fat mega-contract.
Wilson is difficult to project for a couple reasons, as his years as a reliever make it a little more difficult to evaluate what will happen the next five seasons, especially his ability to stay healthy. There are two mind-sets on that:
1. His years as a reliever saved wear and tear on his arm, so he actually has less mileage on it than most 31-year-olds.
2. Because he's only started for two seasons, we don't know if his arm can hold up for 200-plus innings for six, seven seasons in a row.
Aside from that unknown, one way to project his future is to compare him to other similar pitchers. During his age-29 and 30 seasons, Wilson had a 142 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for league performance and home park). From Baseball-Reference.com, I found 16 other pitchers since 1969 who pitched 400 innings in their age 29/30 seasons, with an ERA+ of at least 130 and who averaged at least 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
Those 16: Greg Maddux, Johan Santana, Orel Hershiser, Cliff Lee, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, CC Sabathia, J.R. Richard, Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter, Teddy Higuera, David Cone, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Bartolo Colon.
Let's see how those pitchers did from ages 31 to 35. I'm going to leave Smoltz, Sabathia and Richard out of the study; Smoltz spent two of those years in the bullpen (although he did miss one season with an injury), Sabathia is just entering his age-31 season and Richard suffered a stroke during his age-30 season and never returned to the majors.
Here are the seasonal averages for the other 13 (noting that Lee and Santana are still in the middle of that 31-35 age range):
29-30: 226 IP, 191 H, 63 BB, 193 SO, 2.99 ERA
31-35: 178 IP, 161 H, 46 BB, 157 SO, 3.24 ERA
Seven of the 13 averaged at least 200 innings from 31 to 35 (Maddux, Lee, Johnson, Glavine, Schilling, Clemens and Mussina). Hershiser missed nearly one full season, Carpenter two and Higuera and Colon also battled major injuries.
Overall, though, the pitchers remained fairly effective, suffering only a slight decline in performance. Based on this small sample size, if Wilson remains healthy, he should remain effective.
There is something else to consider, however. Those pitchers averaged 2.5 walks per nine innings from 29 to 30, and 7.7 strikeouts per nine. Wilson averaged 3.5 walks and 7.9 strikeouts. Those pitchers displayed better control than Wilson. So maybe a better comparison is to find pitchers with more similar walk and strikeout rates. I searched for all pitchers since 1969 from the ages of 27 to 32, who over a two-year span pitched at least 400 innings and averaged between 3.0 and 4.0 walks per nine innings and between 7.0 and 8.5 strikeouts.
Here's the complete list (you'll see some repeat names), followed by each pitcher's ERA+ over those two years. Remember, ERA+ adjusts for league and home ballpark (100 is league average).
David Cone, 1994-94: 146
C.J. Wilson, 2010-11: 142
Kevin Appier, 1996-97: 138
Ryan Dempster, 2008-09: 137
Mario Soto, 1984-85: 130
Mark Langston, 1988-89: 130
Jack Morris, 1985-86: 125
Andy Benes, 1996-97, 120
Doug Davis, 2004-05: 119
Darryl Kile, 1996-97: 119
Pedro Astacio, 1999-00: 113
Steve Carlton, 1974-75: 111
Aaron Sele, 1998-99, 110
Mickey Lolich, 1969-70: 109
Todd Stottlemyre, 1996-97: 109
Mark Langston, 1990-91: 108
Steve Carlton, 1973-74: 106
Jose DeLeon, 1988-89: 106
Floyd Bannister, 1983-84: 102
Todd Stottlemyre, 1995-96: 102
Jose DeLeon, 1989-90: 101
Andy Benes, 1995-96: 101
Pedro Astacio, 1998-99: 98
Juan Guzman, 1992-93: 98
Floyd Bannister, 1984-85: 87
You see the problem here, right? Of the 25 two-year groupings, Wilson's ERA+ rates second-best. The argument is that it's unlikely he can continue to keep his ERA around 3.00 based on his current walk and strikeout rates.
Of course, there are two caveats here: Wilson does a good job of keeping the ball in the park (only 26 home runs allowed the two seasons combined), and he pitched much better in 2011, cutting his walks from 4.1 to 3.0 and increasing his strikeouts from 7.5 to 8.3.
Plus, there are some good pitchers on that list -- and you probably noticed Steve Carlton's name. After his famous 27-10 season in 1972, he battled control problems for a few years. But he regained mastery of his slider and was one of the first conditioning freaks in baseball. He won three Cy Young Award in his 30s. Now, I'm not comparing Wilson to Steve Carlton, but pointing out that pitchers can evolve well into their 30s.
Wilson improved in 2011. If he can maintain that improvement and stay healthy, he'll be worth the big contract he'll receive. If he pitches closer to his 2010 level, his new team will be disappointed.
As with any pitcher ... buyer beware.