Quick. Name a starting pitcher on the New York Yankees from the mid-2000’s.
Chien-Ming Wang. The Taiwanese sensation is famous enough in his home country to incite a murder, but is routinely overlooked when reminiscing over quality starters throughout the past decade.
Between his big-league debut in 2005 and his injury in 2008, no single Yankees starter (minimum 100 innings) compiled a better ERA than Wang. Not Pettitte. Not Johnson. Not even Mussina. Furthermore, over that time frame, his 3.80 ERA over 623.1 innings rank as the 11th-best earned run average in the American League.
That string of success snapped in 2009. Wang needed shoulder surgery to repair his rotator cuff and shoulder capsule, which ignited his precipitous downfall. It also earmarked the beginning of an arduous, two-year rehabilitation journey that ended with the Washington Nationals in 2011.
Wang finally got back on the mound, throwing 62.1 innings. He never showed flashes of brilliance, but was certainly effective at times — as is evidenced by a 4.04 ERA and 4.17 xFIP.
The marriage between the Nationals and Chien-Ming Wang appears destined to last for at least one more season. Manager Davey Johnson seems particularly interested in keeping the right-hander — even offering his own salary as compensation — to add to a young Nats rotation that could feature the likes Stephen Strasburg, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, and Tom Gorzelanny in 2012.
As one would expect in a pitcher coming off a significant shoulder injury, Wang saw his fastball velocity drop from 91.8 MPH in 2008 to 90.6 MPH this year. That could rebound after another winter of rehab and rest, but it’s comforting for the Nationals to know he was still effective despite that velocity drop.
Chien-Ming Wang thrives on generating a myriad of ground balls. He owned a 53.4% ground ball rate (ranked 19 out of 169 pitchers) in his two months of work in 2011 and also had the lowest walk rate of his career with only 1.88 walks per nine innings. That combination should help him be quite useful for the Washington Nationals next year, especially if his offspeed stuff can continue to improve after the long layoff.
One big red flag is that left-handed batters once again raked against Wang at the plate. He handcuffed righties, holding them to a .183 AVG in his eleven starts, but lefties hit .361. That type of platoon split is incredibly common for a sinker-slider specialist, and Wang must either BABIP lefties to death with throwing that sinker on the outside part of the plate or better develop his sparingly-used changeup. He also threw a few curveballs for the first time in his career, which could also help neutralize lefties depending on the effectiveness.
Overall, resigning Chien-Ming Wang should prove to be beneficial for the Washington Nationals. The 31-year-old should bring veteran leadership to a young rotation and produce right around his career 4.19 xFIP, but he could become much more than that. He is only four years removed from being one of the top-tier starters in the American League. While one cannot expect Wang to revert to career norms after such a major injury, that chance does exist.
And for a guy who says signing for a lot of money is not important, who doesn’t want to take that chance?