Maximizing Potential

For years, Chien-Ming Wang has been the poster boy for successful pitching without strikeouts. He’s used a dominating sinker to induce a ton of ground balls, allowing him to keep hitters off the bases even without generating swings and misses. By throwing strikes and getting hitters to pound the ball into the dirt, he’s turned himself into a front line pitcher and helped analysts get away from evaluating pitchers solely by strikeout rate.

However, unlike some other groundball artists, Wang has always had strikeout stuff. He throws a 91-95 MPH fastball and an 83-86 MPH slider, and both pitches have serious movement. For comparison, his velocity on these two pitches basically matches what John Smoltz throws to a tee, and only 15 pitchers in baseball history have recorded more strikeouts than John Smoltz. Most pitchers with low strikeout rates simply don’t have the ability to make hitters miss, but Wang’s stuff has always suggested that he should be able to, but was choosing to focus on pitching to contact instead.

That may be changing (as last night’s 9 strikeout performance hightlights). Here are his strikeout rates and ground ball rates plotted on respective graphs:



The K/9 and GB% are going the opposite direction, and both are doing so fairly quickly. In 2008, Wang’s posting a league average strikeout rate and a GB% that, while above average, doesn’t put him in the class of extreme sinkerball types. This is after he posted an increase in his strikeout rate last year that corresponded with a slight decline in his ground ball rate. Pitcher aging curves have shown that, for most pitchers, strikeout rates peak early and declines as a player ages – Wang is seeing the opposite of that happen right now.

He’s always been an interesting pitcher, and this new development just makes him even more curious.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

6 Responses to “Maximizing Potential”

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  1. One other thing to note about his GB% is that his LD% is kind of high this year compared to his previous years and it looks like those groundballs from previous years are turning into line-drives.

    If his LD% returns to league average levels (19%-20%), I’d think a lot of them would revert back to being GB instead of FBs. If he continues with 24% line drives, it could mean trouble. But it’s worth noting that 12 of his 29 line drives so far have been Fliner-Line-Drives, which only fall for hits 63% of the time as opposed to a standard line drive that fall for hits 74% of the time. Still, not a good thing.

    Either way, the strikeouts will definitely help.

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  2. Tom Au says:

    Chien Ming Wang is something of a late bloomer. He only got started in the majors three years ago, at the age of 25. So even though he’s 28 on the calendar, he may be more like 24-25 compared to other players. This suggests that he may peak at 31-32, meaning that he has several more years of development ahead.

    The line drives are troubling but the offsetting factor is that Wang doesn’t give up many home runs (or walks). So the rise in his strikeouts puts his sabermetric ERA below 3.00, since (13*1HR+3*11BB-2*27K)/39 IP) represents a subtraction from the constant term, into Cy Young candidate territory.

    He should have won his arbitration case last winter (and the Yankees were small-minded to take it there). Oliver Perez, the Met, got $6.5 million (almost $2 million more than Wang asked for) even though he’s a year younger and has worse lifetime stats.

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  3. KWK says:

    Not to go off on a tangent, but why is it that Fangraphs (and this post) uses K/9 and not K%? I understand that K/9 isn’t going to give you a vastly different picture than K/Batters Faced, and that there might be some confusion caused by the existence of your GB/FB/LD rates that are pulled from BIP numbers only. I’d just like to see the much cleaner K% (especially for relievers) as the default rate stat for strikeouts on the player pages.

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  4. KWK: There’s been a lot of discussion about using K% instead of K/9, but here’s the short short version: I believe K/9 isolates strikeout potential better than K% does.

    You can read the long version here (in the comments): Get to Know K/9

    I’m not sure I understand the issue with using GB/FB/LD as a percentage of BIP though?

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  5. kwk says:

    Oh, there’s no problem with the GB/FB/LD rates – I love them the way they are. (I thought that one possible reason for not using K% might be because of confusion due to K% coming from BFP and GB/FB/LD coming from only BIP.)

    Thanks for the link…I figured you had your reasons – I was wondering what they were :)

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  6. Mariner Fan in Colorado Exile says:

    Can this change be attributed to pitching coach change – new coach, new approach? I don’t know anything about Dave Eiland, but if I am in his shoes and see the strikeout stuff potential, I’d sure mix it in a bit more to keep hitters guessing and add a strategic weapon to the arsenal.

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