After waiting 17 months, the Washington Nationals finally saw their free-agent signee Chien-Ming Wang (pronounced "Wong") pitch in the big leagues on July 29. Great comeback story so far, but whether he is capable of his past success as a Yankee is still up in the air.
Wang signed with the Yankees in 2000 after their bonus offer beat out the Mariners. The Taiwanese media were surprised the Yankees were so aggressive, as he was not viewed as one of their nation's top prospects. Wang was more of a conventional starter—a straight, hard four-seamer sparked the Yankees' interest at the time. It was only when Wang made the Triple-A Scranton team that minor league pitching coach Neil Allen advised him to try the sinker. Due to his height and ability to place ample pressure on the seams with his index-finger, the sinker became his signature pitch.
As a Yankees starter, Wang's best seasons came in 2006 and 2007: He won 19 games in each season. Despite the success, he was not as dominant as the media would portray him. His strikeout rates were below average. The ability to induce ground balls was his real weapon, which allowed him to eat up innings while having ample rest in the dugout between innings, as his teammates gave him the best run support in the league during that time frame.
Then the injuries started. Wang's first major injury came as a shock, as he tore a ligament and a muscle in his right foot while running the bases during interleague play. After coming back in 2009, he ran into a terrible stretch of his career, looking uncomfortable on the mound. Many speculated he was still bothered by his 2008 freak injury. It was also noted that his release point was 5 inches higher to compensate for the pain. He would eventually need season-ending shoulder surgery, rendering him unable to help the team further in its subsequent World Series championship.
Since then, Wang has been working his way back to the majors, a journey that has taken more than two years. He signed two consecutive deals with the Nationals, the latest being a one-year, $1 million contract with performance incentives up to an extra $4 million.
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So far, so-so
During his time with the Yankees, Wang mostly used a combination of his sinker with a slider and a change-up. Wang would use his off-speed pitches to make sure hitters would not just wait on a lifeless sinker. It kept hitters honest, to a degree, as he induced a slightly below average whiff rate during 2006 and 2007.
So far in 2011, he has showcased his usual sinker and slider, but has replaced his change with a split-finger fastball (though I can't find any instances where his "old" change-up was not in fact a split finger grip). His current slider looks to cluster in two distinct groups: One is a sweeping slider, the other drops in a more slurve—11-to-5 curve fashion.
In the five starts Wang has made for the Nats this year (up to his Aug. 21 start), he's been able to showcase a groundball rate consistent with his career numbers (a 55 percent rate compared to his 59 percent career rate). His K/9, though, has hit an all-time low, coming in at 2.33. This can be explained in part by his 3.8 percent whiff rate, well below the league average.
Wang uses his sinker to both lefties and righties, but likes to use his slider against right handers, and his splitter to left handers.
Hitters have been making contact on Wang's pitches at above 90 percent, well above the league mark of 81 percent this year. This is mainly due to his absurd 88 percent outside the strike zone contact rate. It's not conclusive, but it seems like hitters are having a jolly time making contact against Wang. So far the defense behind him has been able to handle the duties (whether these balls are weakly induced or are scorched off the bat is another question) with minimal damage, as his opponent BABIP is hovering .250.
It's probably too early to predict anything meaningful for Wang's future. But so far in 2011, Wang has shown his ability to induce ground balls at around the same clip as he did pre-injury. What's not apparent is whether good results are sustainable when hitters are making that much contact.
Wang's health is also a major consideration, as he took more than two years to recover from shoulder surgery. Taiwanese youth are notorious for their strenuous bullpen sessions and practices. Pitchers' arms have trended toward deteriorating at an early age. Not saying he's injury prone, but looking at past Taiwanese pitchers' records in the majors does make you wonder about Wang's future.
References and Resources
2011 statistics used are as of Wang's Aug. 21 start (five starts in total).
PITCHf/x data comes from Joe Lefkowitz's tool.
For other, more personal pieces on Wang check out these two articles.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.