It was not so very long ago that Chien-Ming Wang was a Cy Young candidate and even received a handful of MVP votes. It’s even less time ago that his ankle injury — sustained while running the bases in Houston — created an outcry, or at least a tempest in a teapot, about AL pitchers having to hit in interleague play. Between that point, June 15, 2008, and July 29, 2011, Wang threw just 42 innings and looked pretty rotten doing it. He lost all of 2010 and the first few months of 2011 to shoulder surgery, and while he didn’t look like much of a world-beater when he returned, his reemergence from long absence has piqued my interest.
Even though he was still working back to form, Wang posted a WHIP of 1.28 and did not walk a single batter in his last 23 innings of work. He wasn’t quite the groundball machine he was during his glory days in the Bronx, but with a groundball rate of 53 percent, he’s still burning his share of worms. Given those two facts — his minute walk rate and solid groundball rate — his 4.04 ERA feels out of place.
He had a huge issue with home runs this year as nearly 13 percent of his flyballs left the park, a rate I don’t see as sustainable going forward, which is good news for his rather bloated ERA. He still relies on locating his pitches down in the zone, so mistakes up in the zone are going to be crushed. That said, 13 percent is so far above his career average, I would be surprised to see a rate that high for him again next year.
Wang’s biggest drawback at the moment, beyond his lack of a track record since his injury and home run issues, is an abysmal K-rate. 3.6 K/9 was the second worst mark in baseball last season for pitchers who threw at last 50 innings — take a bow, Sean O’Sullivan, your 2.93 K/9 stands alone as the only mark below 3.0 K/9. Wang’s never been a high strikeout arm, no matter how liberal your definition of that term is, but I expect him to do better in 2012 than he did last year, perhaps something in the 4.0-4.5 range. This still isn’t good, but it does rise above the level of regrettability.
At the end of the day, Wang’s potential for success comes from a change in pitches. Prior to his shoulder issues, Wang threw a split-fingered fastball in some two-strike counts, trying to get hitters to swing over the top. In 2011, he didn’t throw the splitter, but added a curveball that he primarily threw in similar situations, albeit somewhat more frequently. If he can use that curve, especially against lefties, as a swing-and-miss offering, I think he has a real chance to be a WHIP/ERA asset if not a well-rounded fantasy option.
To be clear, do not keep him if you rostered him at the end of last season. Do not draft him in mixed, maybe not in NL-only either, but keep him on your radar. Even when he was bad last season, he wasn’t allowing a ton of baserunners, and I see him being able to build on that moderate success, especially as he adjusts to his new motion and new offering. He’ll be at the back-end of the Nationals’ rotation behind Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, so it isn’t as though he’ll be squaring off against other teams’ aces very often, which may allow him to steal a few wins, provided the Nats can score runs for him. Wang may not be the belle of the ball right now, but if injury or ineffectiveness hit your planned rotation, keep him in mind as a possible replacement.