Saturday, November 05, 2011

Why You Have to Root for Chien-Ming Wang

Wait. That heading sounds way too much like a command. You don't have to root for Chien-Ming Wang. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that this writer has to root for Chien-Ming Wang. You might have heard that he recently signed with the Washington Nationals for another season for $4 million. It's a rather small and safe investment on the Nationals' part and from the sounds of things, it's where Wang wanted to be because he was grateful that the Nationals stuck with him through his long injury ordeal. And that's just one reason to root for Wang to succeed. Actually, that's two in one. Before this gets too confusing, perhaps the best way to get these thoughts out are in list form. Therefore, in no particular order, here's why this writer roots for Chien-Ming Wang.

1. The Fan is a sucker for a comeback story. Wang was heading for his typical season for the Yankees in 2008. Perhaps he was heading for his best season yet after winning nineteen games for two years in a row in 2006 and 2007. He was 7-2 after a seven inning gem against the Oakland A's on June 10, 2008. The Yankees moved into interleague play after the Oakland series and headed to Houston to play the Astros in a National League park. That meant that pitchers had to hit. Chien-Ming Wang squared up against the Astros' best pitcher, Roy Oswalt, on June 15. Wang struck out on his first two at bats. But the Yankees had built a 3-0 lead on Oswalt heading into the sixth inning. Wang had thrown five shutout innings. Those were the last five innings he pitched in 2008.

In the top of the sixth inning on that day in June, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano had led off the inning with singles. After a fly out, Wang was asked to bunt. His bunt wasn't exceptional and Posada was thrown out at third. Unfortunately, that left Wang on first base. Johnny Damon hit a ground ball and Wang ran hard to second and again, unfortunately, the shortstop made an error and everybody was safe. Wang was on second and the bases were full when Derek Jeter came to the plate. Jeter hit a single. Cano scored and Wang scored behind him. In the process, Wang blew out a tire and that injury effectively killed his season. George Steinbrenner, in the last acts of his bluster, blasted baseball for making pitchers hit in interleague games (a point which gets an agreement from this observer). Wang got the win for the game and he finished the season at 8-2.

Jump forward to the spring of 2009. You could tell right from the beginning that Wang wasn't right after missing the last half of the 2008 season. On April 8, 2009, Wang made his season debut and gave up seven runs on twelve base runners in three and two-thirds innings. Five days later, he lasted an inning and gave up nine base runners and eight runs. Five days later, the same thing happened: one and a third innings and eight runs. After three starts, his ERA was 34.50. The Yankees pulled the plug. They tried to pitch him at various times during the year and after all was said and done, he pitched twelve times including nine starts and finished 1-6 with an ERA of 9.64. To anyone who had eyes to see, there was something clearly wrong with Chien-Ming Wang. The problem was his shoulder and a July 30 operation ended his 2009 season.

At the end of the 2009 season, the Yankees, despite winning the World Series that season, had little charity in their heart for a pitcher that had pitched so well for them for two full seasons and two partial seasons. In the dynastic world of Yankee baseball, winning is all that matters and Wang was jettisoned. The Nationals signed Wang to a free agent contract, but Wang was simply not ready and after much speculation, the Nationals finally announced that he would miss the entire 2010 season. And that leads us to reason Number 2.

2. The Nationals could have washed their hands of Chien-Ming Wang after getting nothing for their money in 2010. Yes, they non-tendered him, but then signed him to a one year contract for less money than the previous contract and he started the 2011 season on a formal rehab assignment. Kudos to the Nationals for sticking with the pitcher and giving him another chance. The move was not altogether altruistic. After all, Wang was a winner in his Yankee years and if he could get somewhat back to what he used to be, he could be useful.

To be honest, the Fan followed Wang during his minor league rehab starts and the results were mixed. But the Nationals were seeing a return of Wang's velocity and were convinced he was ready for major league action. Wang made his first major league start for the Nationals on July 29. He missed by a day starting on his two year anniversary of his shoulder surgery. And this Fan remembers how many naysayers there were on Twitter especially when people found out Wang was going to start a big league game. The naysayers sure sounded like soothsayers in Wang's first two starts, both losses. In those first two starts, Wang pitched a total of nine innings and gave up twelve runs, six of them earned on fifteen hits (one a homer), two walks and two strikeouts. The comeback story looked like a failure. But then we get to reason Number 3.

3. Things picked up with his third start of the season. He blanked the Cubs for six innings to get his first win. Then he pitched six more innings and gave up four runs against the Reds but got his second win. Wang's next five starts were uneven and he lost one of them and received four no-decisions. They weren't great starts. But Wang closed out his season with two straight wins, the last one a six-inning, one-run performance against the Braves on September 24 that did considerable damage to their wild card hopes.

In total for 2011, Wang made eleven starts, finished with a positive 4-3 record and a respectable 4.04 ERA. Wang finished his sixth season in the majors with his fifth winning record. But the thing about Wang is that he doesn't strike out anyone. He finished 2011 with a paltry sum of 3.61 strikeouts per nine innings. This isn't extraordinary for Wang. The two years he won nineteen games for the Yankees, his K/9 rates were 3.14 and 4.70 respectively. Wang has only had one season (his aborted 2008 season) where his FIP was lower than his actual ERA. And that leads us to reason Number 4 to root for Chien-Ming Wang.

4. Wang is the anti-analyses pitcher. He defies all the definitions we currently have for what a pitcher is supposed to be to be effective in the major leagues. Don't get the Fan wrong. This writer loves these newfangled statistics as much as anyone (perhaps more than most). But isn't it cool to have one guy who defies all that logic? Besides Chien-Ming Wang, name one other pitcher in the last fifty years who has logged more than 110 big league starts, has a winning percentage north of .600 and a strikeout per nine rate for his career less than 4.2. Go on, the Fan will wait. Think of one? Give up? There isn't any. Chien-Ming Wang has made 111 career starts, has a winning percentage of .670 (!) and yet has a career K/9 rate of 4.17. There has never been anyone like him in the last fifty years.

Since his debut in 2006, with a minimum of 700 innings pitched, only three other pitchers have a higher ground ball percentage than Wang. They are Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson. But Webb struck out 7.26 batters per nine, Lowe, 5.94 and Hudson, 6.11. Wang doesn't come close to any of those guys. He is an anomaly. You have to go all the way back to the 1950s to find anyone like him (Bob Lemon and Eddie Lopat) with that kind of winning percentage despite that low a K/9.

Put it all together and this Fan has four big reasons for rooting for Chien-Ming Wang. First, he's on the comeback trail. Second, he's signed out of loyalty to a team that has treated him far better than the Yankees did. Third, he had a somewhat successful comeback. And lastly, his success defies all the logic today's valuation stats have for a successful pitcher. No, this writer isn't coming up with some sort of, "he just knows how to win," stuff and no, this writer isn't dumb enough not to understand that run support has a lot to do with his success. But still. It sure is fun to see how long he can keep it going. This Fan of major league baseball hopes Chien-Ming Wang wins nineteen games again this season. Wouldn't that be a gas?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great history on Chien-Ming Wang. This guy was on top of the world in 2008, essentially the ace and workhorse for the Yankees on route to his 3rd straight 19-win season when third base bit him in Houston that fateful day in June 2008.

Since then, it's been such a long, long road back, invisible to most fans, but well chronicled in your article here.

If Wang goes on to win 19 games again in 2012, I'll remember the path he went through to get back:

--missed second half of 2008 season
--painfully disastrous outings in 2009 due to weak ankle and then shoulder problem
--waived by Yankees at 2009 year end
--waiting and waiting in 2010
--rehab, rehab, rehab and fighting through minor league games
--finally made MLB start again in July 2011, with immense pressure to prove doubters wrong

There was no surprise miracle or immediate success to validate his standing, just tough-minded progress at each step. Now he's finally back. Kudos to the Nationals organization for having the patience. They might just be rewarded in 2012.

Minor note: Wang made his debut in 2005, not 2006.

Shiva said...

I wish the Yanks had held on to him. I am a fan of Yanks but this one was heartless. For all that he had done, maybe Yankees could have restructured his contract and given him time to rehad. I just loved Wang as a fantastic, no-nonsense, no troubles in clubhouse kinda pitcher. Of course the Yankees have a good pitching line-up now, but sticking with Wang would have shown that the Yankees had some heart as well! Like the writer, I will be rooting for him.