Wang Chien-Ming to Start: Is he “back”?

New York Yankees pitcher Wang Chien-Ming is scheduled to make his first start today since returning from the disabled list.  He starts against a Texas Rangers team that just lost Josh Hamilton for at least two weeks, but is sitting atop the American League West and still boasts a potent lineup.

Can Wang Chien-Ming return to his 2007 form?

Can Wang Chien-Ming return to his 2007 form?

The reason this is big news is not because I am a fan of Wang (and not a fan of the Yankees).  In his earlier starts at the beginning of the season, Wang drove his ERA to numbers approaching the price for a barrel of crude oil!

After a trip to the DL and a few rehab starts, Wang returned to the Yankees and was put in the bullpen.  During that time, he was impressive as a reliever, allowing two earned runs over eight innings of work in three games [2.25 ERA during that time].  He struck out seven and walked only two; he did give up nine hits.

But while Wang has had success in his limited work out of the bullpen, will the success carry over to starting?  Some hold the theory that it is easier to come out of the ‘pen that it is to start.  Well, let’s look at the numbers.

In Wang’s three 2009 starts against Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, he gave up 23 runs on 23 hits, walked six and struck out only two all in six innings of work.  But there are two points of interest to be taken from those three starts.

First off, he only gave up two home runs — a two-run shot to Nick Markakis and a three run shot to Choo Shin-Soo.  That seems to indicate that he was not making huge mistakes with his pitches as he did not turn the games into home run derby.

But he did give up a large number of hits.  And that leads me to the second point.  Wang is not a power pitcher in terms of strikeouts.  He is a groundball pitcher.  This can be seen in the fact that in 2007 he was tied with Fausto Carmona of the Cleveland Indians for inducing the most double-plays in the Majors (32).  Obviously last season he injured his ankle and missed most of the season.  But through 95 innings in 2008, he had induced 12 double plays.  That is one double-play every 7.92 innings.  The leader last season, Mark Buehrle, induced 34 double-plays in 213.2 innings of work (one every 6.4 innings).  Still, if you extrapolate the numbers, Wang could have approached tops in the Majors last season as well.

Point is that Wang needs that sinker to work in order to induce the groundball.  Among the thirteen non-strikeout outs that he recorded in his three starts, seven were flyballs and six were groundballs [the remaining three outs come from basestealers being caught or runners being thrown out while attempting to advance].  Obviously, he is missing with the splitter as a majority of these outs are flyball outs.

For comparison, let’s take a random set of three games from 2008 — 2 May game versus Seattle (win); 7 May game versus Cleveland (loss); and 13 May game at Tampa Bay (no decision).  During that three game span, Wang had 48 non-strikeout outs.  Of those 48, a large majority (31) were groundball outs.  That means 64 percent of those non-strikeout outs are groundballs.  To give the groundball breakdown, he had eight in the win (five flyballs); seven in the loss (nine flyballs); and 16 in the no decision (three flyballs)!

So, with all this in mind, Wang’s biggest problem in those three starts was failing to make the sinker, well, sink!

Has he turned things around?  Well, in those bullpen appearances against the Philadelphia Phillies (22 May), Texas Rangers (27 May), and the Cleveland Indians (31 May), Wang had sixteen non-strikeout outs.  Of that number, he induced ten ground balls, including one double play.  That comes out to 62.5 percent; close to the random sample set’s groundball percentage!

Thus, based on that small sample set, it does appear that Wang is make to his old ways…and I mean that in a good way.  But, as stated above, being a starter is a different beast.  We will soon see if the old Wang has returned.

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