Chien-Ming Wang suffered another injury setback yesterday, as continuing hip soreness forced the Nationals to pull him from his rehab assignment. He’s only 32, but he’s pitched a grand total of 223 innings in the last five years, and even if he returns to pitch meaningful innings for the Nationals this year or for another team next year, it’s looking increasingly likely that the bulk of his career is already behind him. So it might be appropriate to look at the career he’s already had, as the best Taiwanese player in major league history, and possibly the best Asian pitcher born outside Japan to come to the Major Leagues.
His body is a scar map. He’s been on the disabled list seven times, suffering multiple injuries to his shoulder, hamstring, and hip. His medical bills could probably put your kids through college. (Arthroscopic shoulder surgery costs around $20,000. A year of CUNY tuition for a kid living at home costs about $10,000.)
The Nationals were hoping that Wang could help bolster their rotation as they plan to seriously limit Stephen Strasberg’s innings, but Wang has only managed 23 2/3 ineffective innings this year, and his availability for the rest of the campaign is in doubt. Of course, that’s not to say that a serious comeback is impossible: after all, Ben Sheets is pitching effective and meaningful innings for a playoff contender this year, and if Wang can get healthy that’s exactly what he’d be doing in Washington.
Still, it’s worth taking a look at Wang’s career in retrospect, because from 2005 to 2008 he was one of the better pitchers in the American league. His best year was 2006, when he led the major leagues with 19 wins and finished second in the Cy Young voting, which is the highest any Asian pitcher has ever placed in the voting. In the last two decades, other than Wang, only three Asian pitchers have even gotten votes: Daisuke Matsuzaka, who finished fourth in 2008; Takashi Saito, who finished eighth in 2006; and Hideo Nomo, the 1995 Rookie of the Year who finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in both 1995 and 1996.
That’s a short list of the best Asian pitchers in the major leagues since Nomo blazed his trail, with a couple of notable exceptions, like the durable but rarely dominant Chan Ho Park, and the dominant but rarely durable Hiroki Kuroda. Wang was not quite truly Cy Young-caliber at his peak, but he wasn’t far off — he was worth 12.9 Wins Above Replacement in 628 2/3 innings from 2005 to 2008, which is essentially three All Star-caliber seasons in four years.
Wang debuted for the Yankees on April 30, 2005, the second pitcher and third player from Taiwan to reach the major leagues. The first was Chin-Feng Chen, who debuted for the Dodgers in 2002 after having been signed in 1999. Another 1999 Dodgers signee made his debut later in 2005, Hong-Chih Kuo. At the time, the Dodgers were very active in Taiwan. Three of the eight Taiwanese players in major league history were originally signed by the Dodgers: Chen, Kuo, and Chin-Lung Hu. As it happens, Chen, Kuo, Hu, and Wang all had the same birthplace: Tainan City, a Little League powerhouse whose dominance of the sport was so thorough that authorities from the United States investigated claims of cheating and briefly banned Taiwanese teams from competition.
His success is honestly a bit hard to fathom. Sure, sinkerballers typically pitch to contact, but he never struck anyone out. Moreover, before he signed with the Yankees for a $1.9 million bonus, he wasn’t even the most highly-regarded player in Taiwan. “In high school, he was kind of terrible,” a Taiwanese sportswriter told Sports Illustrated in 2008. “No one thought he could be a star.” As a matter of fact, he learned his signature pitch relatively late in his career. According to the SI piece, after he blew out his shoulder in 2001, the Yankees forbade him from throwing his slider, and a Triple-A coach taught him a different grip for his fastball in 2004, less than a year before his promotion to the Show.
Wang has a career K/9 of 4.1, which is sixth-lowest among all pitchers with at least 600 IP in the last 20 years. His swinging strike percentage is 6.4 percent, which is tied for 11th-lowest. (The astonishing Kirk Rueter puts him to shame, however, with a career K/9 of 3.8 and SwStr% of 4.0%. No wonder Rueter’s 4.27 career ERA is 0.76 runs below his xFIP.) He was basically a one-and-a-half pitch pitcher, throwing his trademark sinking fastball more than three-quarters of the time, and then he’d mix in a slider and changeup. Over his career, the slider has had modestly positive value, the changeup modestly negative value, but the fastball was obviously his bread and butter. Everyone knew it was coming, but no one could get under it.
Obviously, he was a groundballer. His 0.63 HR/9 is seventh-lowest in the past two decades, tied with Brandon Webb, and his GB% is third-highest, behind just Webb and Derek Lowe. A whole lot of batted-ball sins can be forgiven if you never, ever, ever allow home runs, and Wang could do that.
SI argues that Wang’s injury history — which Kuo certainly shares — could have something to do with the tremendous workload faced by Taiwanese prep talent:
At the start of the 2008 season there were 25 Taiwanese players under contract to MLB organizations, roughly a quarter of whom were pitchers who have spent time on the disabled list.
Grueling training regimens in Taiwanese colleges and professional leagues have been blamed for the short careers of pitchers. When he was 18, Tsao says, he followed a half hour of long toss with a three-hour bullpen session and an hour of pitching live batting practice. He once started three games in a four-game tournament. But many believe that the arm abuse begins even earlier. “By the time they get to college, they’re already damaged,” says the director of Asian scouting of one major league team.
For Chien-Ming Wang, there is a risk that the damage may be done. But even if he doesn’t pitch many more innings this year or next year, he has already had a terrific career. Not many pitchers can say that they were the ace of the New York Yankees. He’s got a great pennant race to look forward to if he can heal this season, but he’s already got enough memories to last his fans and countrymen a lifetime.
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