Wilson's mind as important as his arm
Angels lefty uses scouting reports, awareness of his own skills to succeed
TEMPE, Ariz. -- C.J. Wilson keeps moving, always thinking, constantly evolving. An outfielder and pitcher in his school days in Southern California, the Angels lefty originally wanted to sign professionally as a position player but has adapted beautifully to his calling as a pitcher.
A versatile reliever his first five seasons in Texas, he became a starter in 2010 and delivered handsomely for the American League West champion Rangers with a 15-8 record and 3.35 ERA in 204 innings.
Elevated to ace status in 2011 with the free agency departure of Cliff Lee from Texas, Wilson responded with a performance (16-7, 2.94 ERA, 223 1/3 innings) that helped drive the Rangers to the World Series -- and a crushing loss to St. Louis. The Angels -- their fortunes having fallen with Texas' rise -- invested five years and $75 million in Wilson that winter. A 17-game winner in 2013, he has gone 30-17 over the past two seasons with ERAs of 3.83 and 3.39.
"This is my fifth year as a starter, and I still have a lot of room for improvement," Wilson said. "I know what my shortcomings are. If you're in the big leagues, you're not oblivious to it. Teams are trying to decipher your pattern. You have to adjust, be aware of what you're doing."
Wilson enters 2014 as the Angels' No. 2 starter behind Jered Weaver.
"C.J. dissects his ability and what he is trying to do on the mound more than anybody I've been around," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "In that regard, he wants to keep going and seeing the adjustments he wants to make.
"He has to find the balance between finding that edge and keeping his stuff where it needs to be."
By all measures -- of the statistical and eye-test variety -- Wilson had a remarkable 2013 season. He was among the AL leaders in a wide range of categories, underscoring his deep repertoire, endurance, intelligence and competitive will.
Winning percentage: .708, fourth in the AL. Run support: 5.72 per game, sixth in the league.
Wilson: "That's your job as a starting pitcher, to give your team a chance. We had the fourth-ranked offense even though our record [78-84] wasn't great. It's a mental thing. I stayed in the game and gave them a chance. I think I was able to take some pressure off the offense, and they responded by scoring runs.
"It's being positive, making a concerted effort to engage teammates, whether I'm pitching or not. The hitters will say, `I don't know why he's getting me out,' and I'll say, `Here's what he's trying to do.' I work real hard at staying in the game."
Innings: 212 1/3, ninth in AL. Batters faced: 913, fourth. Pitches thrown: 3,651, third. Pitches per start: 110.6, first. Quality starts: 24, third.
Wilson "Pitches per start and innings are related to conditioning. If you're in shape, you can throw more pitches. As a starter, you can conserve. It's about efficiency. As a reliever, you turn it up … throw as hard as you can. My average fastball came in two miles harder -- 93, 94 mph -- as a reliever.
"I can throw a batting-practice fastball, 89 [mph], or bring it up to 92, 93. I learned that -- changing speeds on the fastball -- from Zack [Greinke, a former Angels teammate now with the Dodgers]. He's the first guy I've ever played with who had the same approach I do. He looks at all the data I do, how [hitters'] strengths match up with what I throw.
"Most of the guys who throw a lot of pitches are big guys: [Justin] Verlander, [James] Shields, [Adam] Wainwright, [Jon] Lester. How tall you are doesn't matter. I'm extremely competitive. I campaign [with Scioscia] to get that extra batter. If you want to pile up innings, he told me, get one more out. That's 11 innings over a season. I prepare to throw nine every time out, but I need to be ready to go one extra out.
"As a starter, you need to make that same pitch [fastball] maybe 75 percent of the time. The changeup, curveball -- they're like a breather. You're not throwing as hard as you can. The slider, I put a little more into that."
Opponents' slugging percentage: .361, seventh in the AL. Home runs per nine innings: 0.64, fourth.
Wilson: "I don't give in. It's something I got from watching [Tom] Glavine as a kid. He didn't have one unhittable pitch, like Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan [and] Roger Clemens [did]. Glavine threw 90 [mph] and hit the [catcher's] glove, so he was able to expand his strike zone a little. His walk rate wasn't sexy; he would walk guys. Would you rather walk a guy or give up a home run?
"The home run percentage stat is [all about knowing] scouting reports, knowing hitters. I still miss spots and give up a homer. I don't overthrow; that's a big issue. I don't have a love affair with my four-seamer. I have a number [five or six] of pitches I can throw in any count.
"If you give a guy a pitch he can sit on, a guy like [Mike] Trout or [Miguel] Cabrera is going to hit it hard. You can't make a mistake to the big guys. Glavine wouldn't groove a ball. I said, 'Everything he does, that's what I can do as a pitcher.'"
Opponents' on-base plus slugging vs. fastball: .652, 10th in the AL. Opponents' OPS vs. curveball: .530, second.
Wilson "I'm never going to throw 100 [mph]. I didn't hit 90 [mph] until I was 20.
"My changeup is like 86 [mph], my curveball in the high 70s -- 77, 78. It's important to know when to use it. Guys most likely are going to take it if I start with it. They'll swing at the changeup, because it looks like a fastball, and if I get a first-pitch out, great. I have a lot of movement, which makes it hard to catch me. Everything's hopping. You end up going deeper in counts."
A young 33, exceptionally fit and confident, Wilson is in the refining stages of his career.
His goals? "Being consistent, giving my team a chance to win and getting as deep in games as I can."
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.