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Marlins Offseason Success Plan: C.J. Wilson

With the Marlins already beginning their courtship with what seems like an endless number of free agents, we here at Fish Stripes were barely able to unveil the Fish Stripes Plan for Offseason Success in its entirety. Amid numerous rumors about players such as Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder, Mark Buehrle, Yoenis Cespedes, and even recently Carlos Beltran, the name of the best pitcher available in free agency is lost. C.J. Wilson remains the number one option for free agent starting pitchers this winter, but his name has been under the radar with regards to links to the Marlins, though he is still being considered, 

The big-name signing of the Fish Stripes plan was supposed to be Wilson, and the idea of made a good deal of sense. The Marlins were looking for a left-handed starting pitcher, and it would be difficult to argue that there is a better one on the market than Wilson. However, concerns about his playoff performances the last two seasons may have cut into his value and perception among major league teams. With the Marlins focusing on Jose Reyes, it is unlikely that they would push for both Wilson and Reyes. However, if the team falls short of Reyes or other big-name free agents, Wilson is more than just a consolation prize.

The Numbers

Separate yourself from the identity of the players involved. Examine these pitchers' numbers from 2010 and 2011 and tell me what you think they should be paid.

Pitcher 1 479 2/3 21.0 9.8 48.4 8.2 3.32 3.65
Pitcher 2 415 2/3 11.9 5.4 45.3 7.2 3.94 3.94
Pitcher 3 426 2/3 18.5 8.1 46.2 9,7 4.20 3.81

Note: GB% = Ground ball percentage; HR/FB% = Home runs per fly ball percentage; FIP = Fielding Independent Pitching

It seems fairly obvious from this set of pitchers that Pitcher 1 is the best of the bunch since that time frame. There is an argument between Pitchers 2 and 3 as to which one is better, with Pitcher 2 being likely better. Pitcher 1 excels in all but one category among these numbers, beating Pitchers 2 and 3 in terms of strikeouts, home run prevention, and general run prevention over the last two years.

Now I'll add an additional column with the information from the FanGraphs Contract Crowdsourcing data. Here are what FanGraphs readers thought the three players would earn in free agency.

Player Years Total $(M) AAV $(M)
Pitcher 1 5 77.5 15.5
Pitcher 2 3 33.3 11.1
Pitcher 3 3 31.2 10.4

At this point, it should be obvious that the three pitchers involved are, in order, C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson, the three best available starters on the market. Given the statistics we are seeing from those pitchers, these above contracts have them correctly ranked ordinally and in proportion to their relative value; Buehrle and Jackson are seen as close to equal, essentially earning equal years and similar money, while Wilson is seen as a tier above those two, earning money equivalent to around one win better than the two previous pitchers. When looking at the numbers objectively and with an eye towards a certain contract, it is difficult not to see Wilson as a superior pitcher who, at almost $16 million a season, is properly valued above guys like Buehrle and Jackson.

What Wilson brings to the Marlins' table is almost a perfect setup for the team. The team covets a left-hander, and WIlson is just that. Wilson delivers ground balls at an above average rate, helping him to suppress home runs. He strikes out hitters at an above average rate as well. His only problem is the control issue, but the entire package is still quite appealing statistically.

The Playoffs Conundrum

Many might ask "what about the playoff performance?" There is a reason why the numbers for Wilson include such high innings totals compared to the other two starters: Wilson's above numbers include his two horrendous postseasons from 2010 and 2011. As we can see, even with his disastrous playoff appearances, Wilson still appears to be a strong pitcher.

How much difference did those 52-plus playoff innings make? Using a simple Wins Above Replacement (WAR) calculation, we can find out. Assume that, without those playoff performances, Wilson is a true-talent 3.24 ERA (actual 2010-2011 ERA was 3.14). Assuming the league scores 4.4 runs per game in 2012 (calculated by doing a weighted average of league average scoring the last three years, weighing 2011 the most), that would translate to a 4.9-WAR pitcher in 200 innings pitched. Now assume his true talent with his playoff performances is 3.40 (actual ERA was 3.32). This estimate gives us a 4.4 WAR pitcher in that same time frame.

The difference between those two pitchers is about half a win, valued between $2 and 2.5 million a season. Over a five-year contract, that difference in value is at best $12.5 million. In other words, not including those playoff performances may cause you to overestimate Wilson's value by more than $10 million over five years. At the same time, overweighing those playoff performances may cause you to underestimate his value by a similar amount, depending on how much you weigh the playoffs.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between, which is the stance I took. It is inappropriate to ignore those 52 innings, but it is also inappropriate to improperly weigh them against his remainign 427 innings of excellent pitching. The middle ground is to add them all up and see what you can predict from that. We might expect a pitcher worth 4.5 wins starting next year.

The Scouting

Before we get to a contract, I saw interesting scouting tidbits initially reported by Buster Olney (H/T MLB Trade Rumors)and Jerry Crasnick of ESPN (H/T MLB Trade Rumors) respectively.

Meanwhile, the Marlins are concerned about the command issues C.J. Wilson had in the postseason, according to Olney.
"I know C.J. Wilson is a great story, and he's obviously pitched well," the GM said. "But I don't see knockout stuff, and his arm action concerns me a little bit. Buehrle quietly has been pretty rock-solid for a long time. He works fast and throws with no effort. His recipe seems built to last."

I am in no position to argue about his arm action, though you can find some concerns and commendations about his mechanics among people who study this stuff. From what I can tell, the biggest problem with Wilson's delivery seems to be his "inverted W" leading to some late arm action that could increase torque on his elbows and shoulders. These do sound like legitimate concerns that should be noted.

However, with regards to Olney's comment, while his command has been troublesome, it is just a part of his overall package, and the rest of Wilson from the past two seasons has been superlative. There is a reason, after all, that he has been in the top ten of starting pitchers since 2010. As for his lack of "knockout" stuff, that may be appropriate (Wilson appears to get by with a five-pitch repertoire rather than a single "knockout" pitch), but it is no more relevant to him than it is to Buehrle, who is notorious for his "finesse" pitching, or Jackson, who has an electric fastball but merely competent secondary offerings.

The Contract

What should the Marlins offer Wilson should they go after him? A projection of around 4.5 wins is a decent start for 2012. Given a half-win decrease in performance over the next few years and some modest inflation for the free agent cost of a win, one could imagine a five-year deal worth $86 million, or about $17 million a season. However, the team that does eventually sign Wilson may benefit from a market that overcompensates and devalues his play due to his playoff performance. If so, the Marlins may be able to steal up to $10 million off of that contract, bringing it back down to the levels suggested by the FanGraphs readership. A five-year deal worth $77.5 million seems entirely appropriate and would provide the Marlins a legitimate starter behind Josh Johnson and in front of Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco. A quartet of those pitchers would be able to contend with the majority of rotations in baseball.

What say you, Fish Stripes readers? Would signing Wilson allay some of your disappointment if the Marlins do not snatch Reyes? Would a Wilson addition be a worthwhile move at $15 or $16 million a season?