The Orioles today announced the signing of Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Ying Chen for three years and $11.3 million. I honestly wish I could say I was more excited about this move.
Whenever one of MLB’s perennial doormats makes a move to bring in some exotic talent the other teams may have overlooked, I always root that it will work out for them. Chen is young and clearly has some talent, but there is at least one thing in his numbers that causes me concern.
Specifically, his strikeout rate dropped sharply last year. After recording 146 Ks in 164 IP in 2009 (8.0/9 IP) and 153 Ks in 188 IP in 2010 (7.3/9 IP), he struck out only 94 in 164.2 IP this past season (5.1/9 IP).
Wikipedia attributes the sharp decrease in strikeout rate to lost velocity on his fastball as a result of a “leg injury” without citation to an outside source. Maybe, but one thing I know is that pitchers who show similar movement in their strikeout rates over three seasons like Chen’s last three tend to get hurt in year four. Frank Tanana in the late 1970′s is an example that springs to mind.
Chen has already had Tommy John surgery in 2006, and after four seasons as a top pitcher in Japan’s NPB, he may be just about ready for another elbow tendon transplant surgery.
Of lesser concern is that Chen’s 2011 ERA (2.68) isn’t nearly as good as it looks, given the collapse of offense in NPB last year, reportedly as a result of introducing new baseballs. Chen’s ERA was only good enough for 10th in the six team Central League, and that fact is reflected in his 8-10 record for the Chunichi Dragons, who finished first in the Central League during the 2011 regular season.
For what it’s worth, Chen made two starts in the seven game Nippon Championship Series against the Softbank Hawks. He pitched great in the first game of the series, which the Dragons won 2-1. In Game 5 he gave up five earned runs in seven innings of work, the most runs allowed by any starter in the seven game series. It was a low-scoring series in an extreme pitchers’ year.
At the end of the day, Chen only turns 27 next July 21st, so there’s a reasonably good chance he’ll help the Orioles in 2012. He also posted a better than 3:1 K:BBs rate for the third year in row, which suggests he’s a good pitcher. I just have my doubts that he’s going to last long enough to help the O’s in years two and three of the contract.