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.