C.J. Wilson's transition from bullpen to rotation has been huge for the Rangers

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After four years spent exclusively as a reliever C.J. Wilson convinced the Rangers to give him the chance to claim a rotation spot this spring and five months later he’s been one of the best starting pitchers in the American League.
Wilson shut out the Royals for 7.2 innings yesterday, improving to 14-5 with a 2.88 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 171.2 innings. He leads the league with 77 walks, but has made up for it by having the league’s lowest opponents’ batting average and remarkably giving up just eight homers in 707 plate appearances despite calling Texas’ hitter-friendly ballpark home.
He’s been absolutely unhittable against left-handed batters, holding them to a .124 average and zero homers in 129 at-bats, and even right-handers are hitting just .227/.327/.333 against him. He’s essentially taken his effectiveness as a reliever and transferred it almost exactly to starting, all while throwing 100 more (and counting) innings than ever before.
What’s interesting about Wilson’s transition from relieving to starting is that he’s thrown significantly fewer fastballs than he did working out of the bullpen. Each season from 2005-2009 he threw at least 70 percent fastballs, but this year he’s relied on the pitch just 49.1 percent of the time, which is the sixth-lowest rate among all AL starters.
Wilson is throwing a cutter far more, with a great deal of success, and has also leaned heavily on his curveball and changeup after years of barely using either pitch. As a reliever Wilson threw his fastball or slider 90-95 percent of the time, but as a starter he’s used those two pitches just 62 percent of the time. Wilson believed he had the stuff to succeed as a starter, the Rangers gave him the opportunity at age 29, and now he’s got the fourth-best ERA in the league for a first-place team.
Plus, he’s great to follow on Twitter.

Joe Maddon is on the hottest of hot seats

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Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic have written a fantastically revealing article about the 2019 Chicago Cubs.

The story, on the surface anyway, might be confused for one of those pre-Opening Day team philosophy pieces in which a bunch of players and executives talk about how they need to “go about their business” a better way, focus on the little things and all of that common, cliche-driven material. And yes, there is a fair amount of that in there.

But the larger arc of it is more revealing than that. The whole thing reads like a warning shot from the front office toward the players and coaching staff, with Joe Maddon standing out as a particular subject of rebuke. Indeed, it’s hard to read the thing without believing that, absent a super fast start and a return to championship form, Maddon is gonna be fired this year.

The article has been shared on social media a lot since going live yesterday, and most of that sharing has focused on little things like the Cubs wanting players to eat less fast food this year and batting practice being mandatory a certain number of days a week. But it’s bigger than that. The article doesn’t contain any incendiary quotes or veiled threats, but it seems pretty clear that Maddon is taking blame for the team not being focused in the past.

Part of that comes from the structure of it. The idea here is that the 2018 season ended badly and that, in the offseason, the front office made a point to talk to the players. Theo Epstein talking to Jason Heyward in the batting cage after everyone else has gone home for the offseason. Epstein, Jed Hoyer and other front office officials visiting Jon Lester at his home in Georgia. Epstein and Hoyer going to Anthony Rizzo‘s wedding in Florida. There’s a lot of talk from all of them about hatching the new forward-looking philosophy but everything from Maddon comes from past quotes or quotes given in reaction to the new philosophy. It seems clear that the front office and the players are on the same page and that Maddon is kinda going along for the ride with it, even if he’s saying all the right things.

As far as the substance of the new 2019 philosophy goes, there is a lot of stuff couched in terms of “here’s a good thing we’re going to start doing this year” that come off like criticisms of Maddon for not doing them in the past.

For example, there is talk about how Maddon plans to talk to players and coach more which are hard to read, in context, as anything other than criticism of him being removed or aloof before. They plan to give players lineups several days in advance, characterized as a means of helping them plan, but there is reference to the sense that they were pressing to impress Maddon and not be written out of the lineup in the past. There’s stuff about how the players are “coddled” with clubhouse amenities and how Maddon’s office was too far away from them and how he talked to the press too much and to the players too little. Again, not explicitly stated as a current criticism but, rather, couched in terms of a “here are good things we’re going to do now.” It’s clear, though, that the unspoken idea is “. . . and we should’ve done it differently before.”

When put together with other things in the article — things like (a) Maddon not getting a contract extension and thus being a lame duck; (b) top executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer making a point to travel with the team more on road trips and show up more in the clubhouse at Wrigley; and (c) a Theo Epstein/Jon Lester-driven narrative that makes references to both the Chicken and Beer and Bobby Valentine-era Red Sox — it all puts one in mind of the late Terry Francona-era Boston Red Sox. To be sure, it’s reported and stated much more more artfully than that. This is not an anonymously-source hit piece driven by a Sox chairman or VP with an axe to grind or anything. It’s a good article. But it makes one think that a message is being sent to and/or about Joe Maddon, even if it’s being sent more subtly than the kind of message you might’ve seen sent in, say, the Boston Globe back in the day.

No matter what you think of it all, it strikes me that Maddon is on the hottest of seats right now and that, if and when he’s fired, this article will stand in hindsight as a pretty obvious harbinger of it.