Sunday, December 24, 2006

Can Wang Repeat?

I've got a few free minutes, so I figure that I would address the subject of Chien-Ming Wang. I know that I promised a profile on Dan McCutchen, but that will have to wait. It takes me about an hour to write a profile, but considerably less to comment on a well known Yankee.

Chien-Ming Wang was excellent last season. He pitched 218 innings of 3.63 ERA ball, following a 116 inning, 4.02 ERA rookie season. Wang was, as THT puts it, the most democratic pitcher in the majors, striking out just 76 and walking 52. He was arguably the AL's 2nd best pitcher last season, and the BBWAA voted him 2nd in the AL for the Cy Young award.

Wang's season was historic. No pitcher in history has ever maintained strikeout rates this low and been this successful. In fact, according to that THT article, no pitcher has qualified for the ERA title in the past 15 years with a strikeout rate as low as Wang's 3.1. He compensates with ground balls, posting a 2.84 G/F ratio.

Wang is not the only groundball specialist in the majors. Derek Lowe posted an identical ERA of 3.63 with a 3.48 g/f ratio. Brandon Webb was probably the NL's best pitcher with a 3.10 ERA and g/f ratio of 3.64. However, Webb struck out 178 and Lowe struck out 123. Only really Aaron Cook posted extremely low strikeout rates, posting an ERA of 4.23 while striking out 92 in 212.2 innings, with a 2.59 G/F ratio.

But Aaron Cook managed a 4.24 ERA in the National League (Coors has become a fairly neutral park in recent years). Chien-Ming Wang has been much better. Why?

Wang doesn't have inhuman G/F ratios. He's very good, but nothing that we haven't seen before. Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb had comparable performances with better ratios. He doesn't have inhuman control, or completely erradicate the home run. The Yankees infield defense isn't nearly as good as the Dodgers' or the Dback's infield, or even the Rockies' infield. So, why is Wang so damn good?

It's hard to tell. It could be luck. Wang has only pitched a 330 major league innings, and could very well be playing over his head. Even so, after a slowish start to the season (His ERA eached 4.52 in the begining of June), Wang was very consistent month to month. He posted ERAs of 3.19, 3.03, 3.23, and 3.48 over the next four. For all intents and purposes, Wang was a legit Roy Halladay ace after he settling in. So what the hell is going on?

I don't have an answer. The common explanation from fans is that Wang throws harder than most sinkerballers. I think that velocity definately has something to do with it, but I Wang is far from the first power pitcher to throw a sinker. I think that sometimes pitchers have an inhuman talent that is impossible to explain, and that Wang's ability to induce weak groundballs is an inhuman talent. Maybe it is the hesitation in his wind up, maybe it is something about the sinker grip that Neil Allen taught him, or maybe he's just really good at throwing it.

How good can Wang be? I think that the jury is still out. Wang could very well regress to a Westbrook/Cook level of performance. My first instinct when thinking about this issue was that Wang would have a problem even recreating his 2006 performance. I've changed my mind. I think that Wang could very well put up entire season ERAs similar to those last four months that he pitched.

Wang has only been throwing his sinker for two years. Neil Allen taught it to him before the 2005 season in Columbus. I think that he's still a little bit rusty with it. Wang's ground balls are unusually weak, almost like Roy Hallday's. When he is inducing his weak ground balls, he is almost unbeatable. Most groundball pitchers allow a lot of runs when balls inevitably squeak through their defense. Wang's problems always seem to come out of the stretch. That's not news to Yankee fans. If the power of Wang's sinker comes not from it's sink but from his deceptive delivery, than his stretch move wouldn't have the same kind of sink. His problems with men on base may not be something that he can fix without some serious coaching.

Wang got better as the Yankee infield defense got better. Alex Rodriguez had a terrible first three months, but was decent after that. Robinson Cano started slow but blossomed into a superb defensive 2nd baseman, and although Jeter didn't have an excellent year, he was better in the 2nd half. Giambi also played less 1st base later in the season.

The Yankee infield was average last season. Phillips and Cano brought it way up, while Jeter, Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez brought it down. Early rumors have Alex Rodriguez dropping back down to the playing weight that he was at a few years ago, and the Yankees very clearly want a gloveman to replace Jason Giambi at first. Jeter was a pretty good defensive shortstop in 2004 and 2005, and is very capable of playing at least average defense. I think that if everything breaks his way, that Wang is capable of improving on his 2006 performance. I'd say that he is capable of putting up ERAs between 3.20 and 3.40.

Still, the true power of Chien-Ming Wang doesn't really lie in his ability to put up gaudy ERAs. Wang is a bonafide innnings eater. He pitched 218 innings in 2006, but he is capable of better. Joe Torre had Wang, in part due to prior shoulder problems, put Wang on a very short leash. Wang was allowed to throw over 100 pitches only eight times, regularly finishing his outings with 85-90 pitches thrown. He was the 3rd most economical pitcher in the majors, throwing just 14.01 per inning. (Btw, is anyone else amazed that Greg Maddux threw just 12 pitches per inning in 2001? Holy crap)

I think that Wang's true power lies in his ability to gobble up innings. Wang runs through batters like Maddux, Halladay, Webb, or Carpenter. All of those guys are 240+ inning per year threats. I think that as Wang proves that his shoulder is healthy, he will start posting inning counts in the 240 inning range. That means that Wang will average 7 innings per start - a considerable feat in today's offensive era. Even if his ERA is closer to 4.00 than 3.0o, he'll still be an incredible valueable pitcher. Baseball is a giant war of attrition, and starters who go the distance have value far beyond their run prevention. If you want an example of this, look at the inverse in Jaret Wright. He posted a decent ERA, but he hurt the team by leaving before the 6th inning most of the time.

Merry Christmas.