Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Three Cheers for Revivals!

We as a people are captivated by revival stories. Whether it be Lazarus rising from the dead or an old actor getting one last great part and an Oscar nomination, we love to root for someone making it back from the trash heap of history. Last night we had several of those kinds of stories. There was the Chien-Ming Wang start for the Washington Nationals. Dontrelle Willis pitched eight strong innings for the Reds (and got another hit). Micah Owings pitched three strong innings with four strikeouts and raised his record to 6-0 with a 2.58 ERA (he got a hit and scored a run too). Jason Isringhousen recorded his sixth save after most people thought his career was over. And LaTroy Hawkins picked up a win for his eighth different team in his eleven year career. If you like back from the dead stories, they were like shooting stars last night.

Let's start with Chien-Ming Wang. Wang won nineteen games for the Yankees in both 2006 and 2007. He was heading for his third straight very good season in 2008 as he was 8-2 after fifteen starts. But he blew out a wheel running the bases during an interleague game (leading to one of the last bombastic outbursts from George Steinbrenner). Wang missed the rest of that season. The pitcher tried to come back in 2009 but he wasn't right and took a bunch of serious lickings before mercifully being shut down. He did make a few more appearances later in the year in relief, but he wasn't right.

After a pitcher wins 55 games in only 95 starts for the Yankees (good for a winning percentage close to .700), you would think the Yankees would give him a chance to work it out. But he was cut loose faster than an undersized fish and he signed with the Nationals. But his leg problems led to shoulder problems and he missed the entire 2010 season. After not earning a dime of his 2010 salary, you would understand if the Nationals would have followed the Yankees' lead and dumped him too. But they didn't. They signed him this year--granted, for a lot less money--and gave him a chance to work his way back.

And he did make it back to the majors and made his first start for the Nationals on July 29. It didn't go well. He gave up six runs with nine base runners in only four innings and lost. He next started August 3 against the Braves and it went little better. He lasted five innings in that game and gave up eight base runners and six runs again (though only two of them were earned). And then came his gem on Tuesday night.

Wang pitched six full innings. He carried a no hitter through five and gave up only one hit and two walks through six. One of those three base runners was erased by a double play. Two things were encouraging about that start. The first is that Wang was throwing his sinker at 92, or just one MPH less than his heydays with the Yankees. The second was that he induced eleven ground balls compared to just four fly balls. That was vintage Chien-Ming Wang.

It will remain to be seen whether Wang can build from that game (after all, it was against the Cubs). But those of us who root for dead-risings will be watching.

Next, we come to Dontrelle Willis. One frustrated Reds' fan said on Twitter that Willis was just good enough to lose. This observer thinks that statement was unfair (though understandable from a rabid fan's point of view). Yes, Willis is now 0-2 in his six starts since returning from the dead. But in those six starts, he's given up runs in the following order: 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3. Wouldn't you take that from any starting pitcher? The big thing for Willis is that he is throwing strikes. His 2.6 walks per nine is his best since his halcyon days of 2005. The D-Train is back on the tracks.

Let's face it: Micah Owings has never been a very good pitcher. Oh, he had a decent rookie season for the Diamondbacks in 2007 when he became a fan favorite in that market. But his 8-8 record and 111 ERA+ were deceiving and a bit lucky. He actually had a similar season in 2008 but was less lucky and his ERA ballooned.  Obviously the Diamondbacks didn't think that highly of him as he was the old "Player to be Named Later" in the Adam Dunn deal that sent the slugger to the Diamondbacks and Owings to the Reds.

Owings had two disastrous years for the Reds. His walk rate ballooned, which isn't a good thing for a guy prone to giving up homers. His WHIP was over 1.5 both years for the Reds and 2010 gave him three straight years of ERA+ in the 70s. The only startling feature about Owings was his ability to hit. In 215 big league plate appearances, Owings has a .512 slugging percentage and a career OPS+ of 110! He's hit nine homers in his career. But even that part of his game fell off with the Reds in 2010.

It was no surprise when the Reds non-tendered him after the season. Owings caught back on with the Diamondbacks and started the season in Triple A. But he's now made twenty appearances including four starts and has picked up a habit of scooping up those vulture wins. His 2.68 ERA is misleading as heck as his FIP is over four and batters are only hitting .228 with balls in play. Owings has also stranded 83% of his base runners. Those are unsustainable numbers. But still, we can include Owings in the back from the dead column and hope his luck continues. As long as he is in the big leagues, we get the thrill of his offense as a pitcher.

Jason Isringhausen is 38 years old. He's made 667 appearances in his career but made none last year and only nine the year before that. And here he is in 2011, back from the dead for the New York Mets. Isringhausen has made 46 appearances this season and is now the Mets' closer after they traded K-Rod. He has six saves. His next save will be the 300th of his career. His K/9 of 8.0 is his best since 2006 and his WHIP of 1.180 is his best since he was the Cardinals' closer in 2007. Before he became the closer, Isringhausen recorded fifteen holds. Not bad for a guy everyone thought was finished.

LaTroy Hawkins finishes this back from the dead post. Hawkins, like Isringhausen, is 38 years old now. As mentioned, he's pitching for his eighth team in eleven years. He had a very good year for the Astros in 2009 but made only 18 appearances for the Brewers in 2010. They didn't go well and he was as welcomed in the game for Brewers' fans as was Trevor Hoffman. Hawkins compiled only 16 innings the entire season and gave up 15 runs. There was a bit of bad luck involved. His BABIP was over .400 and he struck out over ten batters per nine innings. But all of those things matter little if you only contribute 16 innings all season which included three losses against no wins.

This season, Hawkins has become a thriving and reviving member of the Brewers' bullpen. Hawkins has pitched 38 times this season for the Brewers and has a sparkling 1.73 ERA (with a 2.90 FIP). He has 17 holds and a win to show for those appearances. His strikeout rate is half of his career average, but he isn't walking anyone either. Plus, he's given up only one homer all year. The addition of Francisco Rodriguez pushes Hawkins down to the seventh inning and lower leverage situations, which is perfect for him to thrive.

We love resurrection stories. We love when people pick themselves off the floor and again perform at a high level. In Major League Baseball, several of those stories all played a part in yesterday's games. That makes for a fun night for any Fan. One of this writer's favorite Twitter follows, Dave Gershman (@Dave_Gershman)--of ESPN's Sweetspot, Beyond the Box Score and Marlins Daily fame--mentioned during Wang's outing that Yankee fans were probably gnashing their teeth over Wang's success. This Fan replied that Life is bigger than your favorite team and he agreed. Such revival stories are good for the heart and one of the reasons we love our sports so genuinely.

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