As a displaced Washingtonian living in New York from 2004-2007, I went to alot of Yankees games (what did you think I was gonna go see the Mets?). In that time, I saw what has so far been the peak of Chien-Ming Wang‘s career. With lots of Wang starts under my belt (I really didn’t even intend to write that as a pun), I have some insight as to what you’ll see, and what you should look for. Here are a few thoughts I have on what you should look for:
Wang gets by on a power sinker – a fastball that has some velocity (low-90s) but gets drilled into the ground when hit. And believe me, people hit it. His career K/9 is 4.2, meaning in a regular start you might see one strikeout, two if he does well or goes deep into the game. In fact, much like the criticism of John Lannan, many sabrmetricians predicted Wang’s demise for a long time due to his complete inability to induce a swing and miss. But it wasn’t until major injury that he started struggling, indicating he could get by without striking people out (which should hearten us Lannan fans). Part of this was his lack of walks. His career walk rate is 2.6 BB/9, which is very low. Still, because he strikes out so few, his K/BB ratio is below 2, another indicator that frightened that statisticians.
All of this still worked for him, though, because he induced so many grounders. And it’s not just a few grounders. It’s a TON. His career GB/FB ratio is 2.70 – very high. In his best season, 2006, he had a ratio over 3, and every year prior to 2009 it was at least 2.40. In 2005 he ranked 4th in the majors, in 2006 he was 3rd, in 2007 and 2008 he ranked 6th. His ratio in 2005 and 2006 would have been enough to lead the majors if he had done it in 2009.
Meanwhile, he does give up some hits. For example, in 2006, when he went 19-6 with a 3.63 ERA, but he also allowed an opponents batting average of .277. This is high – of the 83 qualified starters in the majors, this ranked 57th. Pretty bad for a guy who’s ERA ranked 16th among that group. But just looking at the opponents numbers also gives us some big clues on what Chien-Ming Wang does well. Despite the #57 AVG against, his .320 OBP-against ranks #36, a significant improvement. But the real key is the SLG against, which is .375, good enough for #12 in the league. That leads of course, to a strong OPS-against: his mark of .695 ranked #16 in 2006. He also gave up 12 HRs, ranking him #1 among those qualified starters.
What Does This All Mean?
It’s pretty simple, actually. When you watch the game tonight, watch where the ball goes. Wang, more than any other pitcher I’ve ever seen, can get by with a few “seeing-eye” singles an inning. He induces so many double plays (ok one more from 2006 – his 33 double plays induced ranked #2) that a single here or there doesn’t mean much. It also doesn’t indicate that he is pitching poorly. Lots of batters hit him, very few strike out. That means, every inning or so, one of those hits will make it through the infield. Even 2 or three. But because he keeps the ball on the ground, that slugging percentage against stays very low. So no extra base hits means only singles. Teams have to string many hits together to score more than a run on him, rallies are just plain hard to come by.
Of course, this all means nothing if he can’t keep the ball on the ground. Just as I didn’t get flustered when I was at a game and Wang gave up a few singles, nothing was a better indicator of trouble than some lazy fly ball outs. Sure, one here and there are going to happen – his GB/FB ratio doesn’t have a numerator of zero. But if early in the game, he is giving up deep outs to the outfield, even if the aren’t hard to catch, it’s probably a good bet that he isn’t on his game. And with no ability to strike guys out, if he’s not on his game, he’s not getting guys to hit groundballs. And if he can’t do that, he might as well not be in there. Whatever happens, I’m excited to see him play. I’ve been championing this acquisition since before it happened, and I hope it works out, both for him and for the Nationals.