C.J. Wilson was supposed to be the Rangers' top starter this October, and given they have made it all the way to Game 5 of the World Series, you could be forgiven for assuming that things have gone according to plan. They haven't, though, as Wilson has struggled in his four starts, and the Rangers have basically made it this far in spite of his performance.
While that says a lot about the Rangers in terms of their AL-leading offense and their revamped bullpen, we're down to what is, in essence, a three-game series to decide who is World Champion, as these teams are tied up at two wins each. As Wilson is starting tonight, the Rangers don't need him at his best, as the rest of these playoffs have shown, but it would sure make their job easier, considering the Cardinals are essentially the NL version of the Rangers: high-powered offense, solid starting pitching, and a remade and now excellent bullpen to clean up.
In terms of results, it's easy to see where Wilson has struggled. While he is still missing bats thanks to throwing plenty of strikes (striking out 8.8 batters per nine over 21-plus playoff innings, half-a-strikeout higher than his regular season rate), he hasn't had the kind of control or command that befits the #throwstrikes hashtag on Twitter. Wilson has walked 14 batters in those 21 frames, with 13 of them coming in the last 16 innings. He has allowed six homers in the playoffs -- 2.5 per nine -- another indication that he's not putting the ball where he wants to, or should.
A look at his pitch selection sheds some light on why. Wilson uses a wide variety of pitches on the mound, throwing three different kinds of fastballs (a two-seamer, a four-seamer, and a cutter) as well as two breaking balls (both a slider and a curve), and, for good measure, a change-up. During the regular season, Wilson threw roughly an equal number of two- and four-seam heaters, with his slider and cutter coming up next, then the curve, with the change lagging behind. He threw the two- and four-seamers for strikes at above-averages rates, despite inducing swings-and-misses on them less often than average, and complimented them primarily with his slider, which drew whiffs nearly 19 percent of the time (13 percent average). His cutter, while used as often, was below-average both in terms of swings-and-misses and in total percentage of strikes. While you might be thinking, "A slider and a cutter are similar pitches -- does Pitch f/x know the difference?", there is a clear velocity difference of 5-6 miles per hour between his cutter and slider.
This worked for him in the regular season, as his best pitches were used the most, and used well. He struck out over eight per nine while walking three per nine, and held opponents to 0.6 homers per nine despite a hitter-friendly home park, thanks in part to the grounders he induced by featuring a two-seamer.
He has had a different strategy in the playoffs, though, with his cutter coming in as his most utilized offering roughly one-third of the time. That's twice as often as in the past, and it has come mostly at the expense of his two-seamer. That decision has likely led to some of the extra homers, as well as fewer grounders and ground outs.
The cutter is a serviceable pitch of Wilson's, but as his lead offering it just isn't getting it done. Hitters have not been fooled by it, swinging and missing half the time they did in the regular season, and it was already below-average in that regard. His two-seamer isn't fooling anyone either, though, in the times he has used it -- it has been a strike more often than in the regular season, but it's been a called strike. Since his lack of command and control has set him up in more hitter counts, pitches like the slider aren't having the same effectiveness, either. When none of Wilson's weapons are working, and he can't locate, these playoffs are the result, as they would be for anyone who relies on command more than pure stuff.
As Wilson is a free agent after the playoffs conclude, there has been discussion about whether he is costing himself money with this poor performance. Given we're talking about 20 innings -- and generally against excellent lineups -- it's hard to get too worked up, especially coming off of another strong regular season campaign. Wilson doesn't have much feel for his pitches right now, though, and it's showing in the boxscores, but this isn't the first time he -- or any other quality pitcher -- has ever performed poorly over the course of a few starts.
If Wilson has his two-seamer working for him early tonight, chances are good we'll see the kind of performance we've come to expect, as he can use that and his four-seamer to set up his slider. If that cutter is his feature pitch again, though, the Rangers' bats and bullpen better be ready for a long night.