|Wilson, Lewis Could Repeat Success||| Print |||Send|
Written by Lewie Pollis (Contact & Archive) on April 08, 2011
When the Texas Rangers lost Cliff Lee, their 2010 ace and playoff hero, to the Philadelphia Phillies in the most talked-about free agent bidding war of the offseason, analysts proclaimed the apocalypse for the defending American League champions.
And yet, those who claim the sky is falling for the Rangers in the wake of Lee's departure are overestimating how much Texas needed him. There's no denying that the Rangers would be a much better team with Lee at the top of their rotation, but last year's squad didn't need him to get to first place.
When the Rangers acquired Lee on July 9, they stood at 50-36; they went 40-36 after the deal went down. Obviously, the drop-off wasn't Lee's fault. There were other factors at play -- regression to the mean for Vladimir Guerrero, for example, and Josh Hamilton's injury problems. The more important question is: How did the Rangers start off so well?
Texas succeeded from the start because of the two secret weapons in the rotation: C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis.
A year ago, Wilson was coming off a career year in which he struck out 10.3 K/9 and posted a 2.81 ERA. Lewis, meanwhile, had thrown 176 1/3 innings with a 2.96 ERA and an outstanding 9.8 K:BB.
How did this dynamic duo fly under the radar? In Wilson's case, the problem was that he was a reliever. Not a reliever like Joba Chamberlain, who many still view as a potential starter. It had been five years since Wilson had started a game at any level; he'd appeared in 247 games out of the bullpen since then.
As for Lewis, his success had come with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japan Central League. He hadn't pitched in the majors since 2007, when he posted a 6.45 ERA in 37 2/3 innings with the Oakland Athletics. In 217 1/3 career MLB innings across five seasons, he posted a 6.71 ERA. In 2003 (the only season in which he had thrown more than 40 frames), he posted a 7.30 ERA in 26 starts, along with a 1.3 K:BB ratio-87% lower than his 2009 campaign in Japan.
The Rangers gambled on the two reclamation projects in 2010, and reaped the rewards. Wilson went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA; he got somewhat lucky with a .266 BABIP and 5.3% HR/FB rate, but even his 4.06 xFIP was above-average. While Lewis' stats seem superficially inferior (12-13, 3.72 ERA), his peripherals were far stronger (3.74 xFIP). The two combined for 8.8 WAR. Remember, the Rangers won the AL West by nine games.
The best part for the Rangers? They don't look like flukes. Both pitchers showed the tools to sustain their success in the rotation.
With the possible exception of increased endurance, the most important trait for a wannabe starter to possess is a larger pitch repertoire. A good relief pitcher can get by with only one or two solid pitches because, in a one-inning stint, opposing hitters don't have time to adjust before the next guy comes in. That's why Matt Thornton led the league in FIP last year while going to his fastball more than 90% of the time.
Wilson, 30, has been in the rotation for only a year, yet he can already mix pitches with the best of them. He went to his fastball just 49% of the time (down from 70% in 2009), mixing in his very good cutter (19%) and slider (12%) as well as a solid curveball (12%) and changeup (9%). He doesn't have a truly dominant pitch, but all five of his offerings ranked as above average according to FanGraphs' Pitch Type Values.
That's not to say Wilson is a lock to repeat. His fastball clocked in at 90.5 mph last year. Good, but it's far less intimidating than the 93.4 mph he averaged out of the bullpen in 2009. Such a drop is to be expected with a move to the rotation, but a difference that large is noteworthy nonetheless.
There's also the concern that he'll be fatigued this year after accumulating more innings last year than he'd thrown in the preceding three seasons combined, and the 71-point discrepancy between his ERA and xFIP suggest some regression is in order. An ERA in the high-3.00 range is a realistic (if slightly optimistic) expectation for Wilson in 2011. Even a regression to the low-4.00's would be a good showing for a pitcher who plays half his games in Arlington.
Meanwhile, Lewis' success appears sustainable because of his outstanding peripheral numbers. Obviously he wasn't going to keep up his 10-strikeouts-per-walk pace from Japan upon his return to the MLB (if you're ever doubt the NPB's inferiority, remember that legendary fluke Tuffy Rhodes tied the single-season home run record with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2001), but he still did quite well for himself stateside.
In 201 innings last year (he threw 352 1/3 innings in Japan in 2008-09, so the workload increase wasn't as large as Wilson's), Lewis' 3.0 K:BB ratio fell just short of the league's top 10.
But his talent can be inferred from some of the big names he beat, including Jon Lester (2.7), CC Sabathia (2.7), and David Price (2.4). His 82 FIP- was good for ninth in the league (Wilson was 10th, at 83), and he finished in the Top 15 in xFIP- (90) and tERA (3.52). The only estimator that came out higher than his 3.72 ERA was his 3.74 xFIP, an insignificant two-point difference.
Lewis isn't likely to get much better this year. After all, he turns 32 this season, and one has to question to predictive power of his 3.55 FIP given his .275 BABIP. It's hard to call a pitcher with a hit rate that low unlucky. But if there's a drop-off, it won't be very big: Bill James, RotoChamp, Marcel and ZIPS all project Lewis for an ERA between 3.71 and 3.87 for 2011.
Don't expect further progress from Texas' 2010 breakout aces. Barring a midseason trade, the Rangers' rotation won't get another big boost until Neftali Feliz gets his much-deserved chance to start. But even if there isn't much room for further growth, now that both Wilson and Lewis have now proven themselves as starters, Texas' pitching staff looks much stronger this year than it did last spring.
They did it without Lee once, and they can do it again.