I was fairly unimpressed when the Washington Nationals announced the other day that the team had re-signed Chien-Ming Wang to a one-year contract that could pay him as much as $5 million if he successfully returns to the major leagues.
I didn’t much care because I assumed that he was nowhere close to being ready, that he was still that guy who could only throw an inning or two in the Instructional League, like he did last fall. I mean, if he was healthy, he would have pitched in the Winter Leagues to prove that he was 100 percent.
Upon his signing the first time, I immediately penciled him into the Nationals’ starting rotation by June, July at the latest. I did this because, well, that’s what the team said was going to happen.
Of course, he was unable to competitively pitch until after the season was over.
I asked masn.com’s Pete Kerzel this afternoon about Wang. He had written an excellent article about the Nationals’ rotational hopes for 2011 and he had mentioned Wang as a possibility. I explained my concern over the dearth of information about the Taiwanese right-hander and asked him point blank if the former Yankee was ready to pitch now.
He replied, “Wang threw well in Fall Instructional League in Viera, and the fact that he had multiple suitors shows how many teams are in dire need of pitching. But he liked how the Nats have [given] him the time and patience to get healthy, hence his willingness to return. If Wang can be close to the pitcher he was in New York, the Nats' rotation improves dramatically. He was a No. 2 [or] 3 in New York, and can shoulder the load, having pitched in such a major market. A healthy Wang makes the rotation much more solid and, factoring in Strasburg, makes it a quintet that could move from solid to good. Wang is throwing with no restrictions, only has to build up his arm strength, which is what Spring Training is about.”
It would seem, then, that Chien-Ming Wang is ready to pitch, and if he is, the Nationals just got a great deal better. This isn’t a guy who has talent but an injury robbed him of showing what he could do.
He’s already done that.
In his first 14 professional games, Wang looked as if he was worth every penny of his very large signing bonus. Pitching for Staten Island of the Low-A New York-Penn League, he had a record of 4-4 and a 2.48 ERA, allowing just eight hits and two walks per nine innings.
But his world changed in his 15th start.
He blew out his arm that night and missed the rest of that season and all of 2001. Some believe it was just “one of those things” that could happen to any pitcher, while others—many others—blame his injury on the extreme training regimens that cause Taiwanese pitchers to break down early.
Chin-hui Tsao, then considered a better prospect than Wang, told a Denver reporter that Japanese and American training was “child’s play” compared to what the Taiwanese endured.
“I practiced hard,” he said, “When I was just 18, I threw long toss for 30 minutes. Then, I threw three hours of batting practice followed by another hour of live-session BP.” By the time these pitchers reached college, they were already damaged.
Wang returned to Staten Island in 2002 and continued to dominate. In 13 starts, he forged a 6-1 record with an ERA of 1.72.
Over the next five seasons, Wang went 32-18 with a 3.28 ERA as he worked his way up to Triple-A Columbus of the International League.
He learned his best pitch in 2004 when former Met Neil Allen taught him a 90 miles-per-hour pseudo-fastball that rode a flat plane towards home plate only to drop about eight inches as it reached the batter.
Johan Santana called it “The Ultimate Weapon.”
Wang arrived in New York in 2005, and from that first year until 2008, his last full season, he was one of the best pitchers in the American League:
|Quality Starts||59 (62%)|
|Hits/Walks/Strikeouts Per Nine Innings||9.1/2.5/4.0|
|Opponents' Batting Average/On-Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage||.262/.320/.365|
|Innings Per Start||6.6|
In 2008, Wang won his 50th career game, the fastest major leaguer to reach that mark since Dwight Gooden in 1986.
Wang has a fastball that is consistently in the low 90s and tops out at 95 miles-per-hour. In addition, his sinker, splitter and slider are all quality Major League pitches. It’s that straight-to-the-plate-before-it-drops-eight-inches pitch, however, that makes him special.
He is as good on the road as he is at home, and he’s as good against right-handers as he is against lefties. He’s a ground-ball pitcher who relies on his middle defense to get him outs.
Let’s compare Wang’s ground-ball percentage to some of the Nationals’ starters from last season. Note: John Lannan and Jason Marquis are considered sinker-ball pitchers with high ground-ball out percentages:
Chien-Ming Wang: 61.1%
John Lannan: 52.7%
Jason Marquis: 49.7%
Craig Stammen: 47.1%
J.D. Martin: 36.2%
The sky was the limit for the 28-year-old, or so it seemed until that sky began to reign down upon him over the past two seasons.
In June 2008, Wang was running the bases in Houston when he tore a ligament in his right foot. Though surgery wasn’t required, he was forced to miss the rest of the season as the damaged foot healed.
Wang said that his foot was 100 percent when the 2009 season started, but something was still very wrong. After three starts, Wang’s record was 0-3 with an ERA of 34.50. He was giving up 14.1 hits and 4.2 walks per nine innings.
In the end, it became obvious that Wang’s mechanics were being altered by his foot injury from the season before. (It was altered mechanics following a broken toe that cut short the career of the great Dizzy Dean.) Southern Connecticut University did a study and found out that his release point was now five inches higher than normal.
Wang was again placed on the disabled list on July 15th and underwent shoulder surgery two weeks later. He began throwing in late December and most of his throwing was on flat ground.
Because of an embarrassment of riches, both on the field and in the bank, the Yankees chose not to tender Wang and instead filled his roster spot with one of the team’s many young talents.
Wang was supposed to take to the mound early last summer for a few rehab games before joining the Nationals in July or August. It never happened. It was a few weeks after the season ended, while playing in the Instructional League, that he pitched one inning twice.
For the Nationals’ Jordan Zimmermann, arm or shoulder surgery is frightening because for him, velocity is everything. Wang, however, makes his living with his sinker and chances are he’ll return to the mound the same pitcher who left it.
Next season, the Washington Nationals could have the makings of a decent starting rotation. The starting five could include:
1. Jason Marquis
2. John Lannan
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Chien-Ming Wang
5. Yunesky Maya, Livan Hernandez or Ross Detwiler
Often, the difference between a competitive team and an also-ran is that fourth starting pitcher. If Wang can return to the form that allowed him to win 19 games in both 2006 and 2007, the Nationals could win—dare I say it?—more games than they lose in 2011.
Well, probably not. But I sound a little less crazy predicting it with Wang in the rotation.