Chien-Ming Wang: The Former New York Yankee Ace's Disappearing Act

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Chien-Ming Wang: The Former New York Yankee Ace's Disappearing Act
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

There are plenty of players in professional sports who can have a great performance once in a while.

One day the guy is on fire, and the next he’s just an average player.

The ability to be consistently good is one of the qualities which make a professional athlete great at their job.   

The athletes described above—those who can have a breakout game once in a while—are merely role players who have a small impact on their respective teams, because they aren’t able to be consistent with their play.   

As for the stars, after a few seasons of performing well and proving themselves at the professional level, you can generally say that that player will continue to do so for many seasons to come. 

This is what makes the disappearing act of former New York Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang so interesting.

Despite rehabbing from an injury after the 2008 season came to a close, it appeared that Wang had legitimized himself as a consistent starting pitcher in the major leagues. Especially when you consider that the righty had started 97 games and had been pitching in the majors for four seasons.

The 2009 season would see Wang take a huge step back, though, even from where he was when he first started in the majors.

In 2005, the 6’3’’ Taiwanese native made his MLB debut for the New York Yankees and was a breath of fresh air for fans.  

The Yankees were finally able to point to a pitcher who had been brought up through the Yankees farm system, as opposed to the high-priced free agents the team had been bringing in for years.

In his first season, Wang pitched admirably, especially for a player who had never appeared in the majors before. He started 17 games for the Bronx Bombers and compiled a record of 8-5 with a solid 4.02 earned-run average.

Wang seemed to learn a lot from his 17 starts in 2005, because he came back in 2006 and had one of the best pitching seasons in the majors. 

Utilizing his patented sinker to induce ground balls, Wang went on to win 19 games and had the eighth-lowest ERA in the American League, at 3.63.

Wang’s 19 wins were tied with Johan Santana for the most in the majors and he finished second to Santana in the AL Cy Young voting.

In 2007, Wang set out to prove the prior season's success was not an aberration. Despite starting the season on the disabled list, Wang didn’t miss much time and returned to the Yankees rotation at the end of April. 

It didn’t take long for him to return to midseason form, either, as Wang brought a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Seattle Mariners on May 5. 

Wang’s bid for baseball immortality was broken up by a home run off the bat of Ben Broussard, and after the game Broussard had this to say about Wang’s performance: “It’s not like he was completely dominating, but he did a good job of keeping us off balance.” 

In what sounded like a ridiculous statement, Broussard summed up Wang’s entire career with the Yankees. 

He didn’t have a blazing fastball (though he routinely got into the mid-90s,) and he was never a strikeout pitcher. But he worked fast, kept his pitch counts low, rarely walked anyone, and generally kept the ball on the ground thanks to his amazing sinker. 

Despite the fact that Wang threw sinkers almost exclusively, he was able to get major league hitters out because of the velocity with which he threw them. 

Wang didn’t have to pitch like current Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia in order to be effective. He was an unassuming, quiet assassin, and if you were playing against him you would look up in the seventh inning and realize you only had four hits the whole game. 

Despite falling short of a perfect game against the Mariners, Wang never looked back in 2007 and won 19 games for the second consecutive season. Wang also compiled a respectable 3.70 ERA, which ranked 14th in the American League. 

However, Wang’s regular season success didn’t translate into the postseason. Wang was solid in both the 2005 and 2006 ALDS series against the Angels and Tigers, respectively, but the Yankees went on to lose both series. 

In the 2007, ALDS Wang started two games against the Cleveland Indians and did not fare nearly as well.

In Game One he gave up eight earned runs in only 4.2 innings pitched, and in Game Four he only recorded three outs while allowing four earned runs, putting the Yankees in a hole they couldn't dig themselves out of.    

In a lot of ways, Wang embodied the Yankees' World Series drought from 2001 to 2008.

Like the Yankees, he was great in the regular season, but when the playoffs started he looked like a completely different player.     

Despite his struggles in the playoffs, Wang had entrenched himself as the Yankees ace heading into the 2008 season, ahead of veterans Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte. 

Even though the Yankees got off to a slow start, Wang began the season with a 5-0 record. Heading into the second half of the season, Wang had won eight of his first 15 starts and looked to be one of the catalysts to lead a slumping Yankees team to the playoffs. 

These hopes came to an end in Houston when, during an Inter league game against the Astros, Wang came up lame while rounding third base. It was later revealed that he had a partially torn tendon and had sprained his right foot, the combination of which caused him to miss the rest of the 2008 season. 

Wang’s season-ending injury in June was a big part of the Yankees' most disappointing season in recent memory, as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1994. 

In December of 2008, the Yankees were dead set on fixing what had been their worst season in well over a decade. They went out and signed free agents Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. 

The idea was to pair Sabathia and Burnett with Wang and Pettitte (who also re-signed in the off-season,) to form one of the more formidable starting rotations in the majors. 

But as the 2009 season got under way, it became clear that something was wrong with Wang, who started off the season going 0-3 with an astronomical ERA of 34.50 during the month of April. 

Many theorized that Wang’s struggles were because he had changed his pitching mechanics as a result of the foot injury that he had suffered the season prior.

Shortly thereafter, the Yankees sent Wang to the minors to try and correct his pitching motion, and he was subsequently placed on the disabled list a few days later. 

When Wang came off the disabled list he was relegated to pitching out of the bullpen to try and regain his confidence. 

Wang soon returned to his familiar starting role, but he continued to pitch poorly in what was a surreal experience for most Yankee fans. 

Although the player on the mound looked like Chien-Ming Wang, wore Wang's No. 40, had the same calm demeanor both in the dugout and on the field, and featured a similar repertoire of pitches,  he was not the same player who had anchored the Yankees rotation the past three seasons. 

He went go on to start nine games in 2009, accumulating a record of 1-6 with an ERA of 9.64 before he was placed on the disabled list for the second time, on July 15. 

Wang would have season ending surgery on his shoulder just 15 days later. 

Without their former ace, the Yankees nonetheless went on to finish the regular season with 103 wins and eventually defeated the Philadelphia Phillies for their 27th World Series title. 

Perhaps because they were winning, or perhaps because C.C. Sabathia had taken over as the new Yankees ace, there was very little talk of Wang the rest of the season. 

There were few updates about how he was progressing with his rehab, and despite the fact that his contract was coming to an end after the season, there wasn’t much talk of whether or not the Yankees would re-sign him. 

Wang was absent during the parade down the canyon of heroes when the Yankees celebrated their newest championship, and it had seemed as if Wang had simply disappeared.  

During the 2009 off-season, amid concerns about how quickly Wang (who would soon be turning 30-years-old) would be able to return from major shoulder surgery, the Yankees decided to allow him to become a free agent when they failed to offer him a contract for the 2010 season. 

To many, it had seemed like the Yankees simply gave up too quickly on Wang, who had been the team’s best pitcher for nearly three seasons. 

Wang’s detractors will point out that while he won a lot of games, he did so on one of the best teams in baseball and that he was essentially a one-pitch pitcher who had failed to add any other effective pitches since being called up to the Yankees in 2005. 

While these arguments are valid, the numbers speak for themselves; omitting his injury-riddled 2009 season, Wang had won a total of 54 games in 95 starts. Simply put, the guy was a winner. 

Regardless of how many runs the Yankees were scoring for him, Wang still had to come out and finish the job, which he did more often than not. 

It’s somewhat hard to believe that a player who had a career record of 54-20 with an ERA under 4.00 going into the 2009 season all of a sudden forgot how to pitch because of a foot injury. 

Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but after the Yankees essentially gave up on him, it didn’t appear that many other major league clubs had much of an interest in Wang either. 

He eventually signed a one-year contract with the Washington Nationals, who have been one of the worst teams in all of Major League Baseball for many seasons. 

In their last two campaigns the Nationals have lost a combined 205 games, which is only 68 fewer losses than the Yankees had in the four seasons Wang pitched for them from 2005 through 2008.  

He has yet to pitch this season as he is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Wang was placed on the 60-day disabled list on April 4 but hopes to rejoin the team sometime before mid-season.   

Just when it seemed like Wang had established himself as an effective major league starting pitcher, he dropped off the face of the earth. 

What legitimizes his demise even more is that the Yankees were willing to let him go and few other teams showed much of an interest in the 2006 Cy Young runner-up. What says even more is that the team that decided to take a chance on Wang only gave him a one-year deal just to test the waters. 

Generally speaking, when a magician makes something disappear, they make it re-appear just to show the crowd that it actually existed.

As it stands, Yankees fans and anyone who took an interest in Wang’s career is still waiting for the guy that was the cornerstone of the Yankees rotation for nearly three seasons to re-appear, even if he has to do so with another team.

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