Chien-Ming Wang Is 35, and 27

There were 13 pitchers who appeared in a Monday afternoon spring-training contest between the White Sox and the Royals. The game took place in one of the few ST venues equipped with PITCHf/x, and to no one’s surprise, the fastest average fastball on the day was thrown by Yordano Ventura. Showing up in second place was one Brandon Brennan, and then in third place, you find Chien-Ming Wang. Just in case you’re wondering, no, there is not a second Chien-Ming Wang. This is not, like, the son of the original Chien-Ming Wang. This is the original Chien-Ming Wang, throwing harder than Daniel Webb. He threw harder than Joakim Soria. He threw harder than Carson Fulmer.

It’s one appearance, and it’s March. Wang worked out of the bullpen, as opposed to being a starter. It’s not like we get to just turn the clock back 10 years, but here’s something Wang said after the game:

If we wanted to turn the clock back 10 years, we’d insist on Wang re-discovering old velocity levels. Now he has. Now we have proof. Chien-Ming Wang was once a hell of a Yankee, and though you might’ve forgotten about him, he never forgot about his success.

Wang never went away entirely. He dropped off of the major-league radar, last appearing in 2013, but two years ago, he was a regular starter in Triple-A, and again last year, he remained a regular starter in Triple-A. He was a proven veteran one level below where he wanted to be, but it’s not like he had to throw in any indy leagues. Yet, let me excerpt a stretch of Rotoworld blurbs:

  • RHP Chien Ming Wang opted out of his contract with the Reds.
  • White Sox signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract; assigned him to Triple-A Charlotte.
  • Braves signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
  • Chien-Ming Wang pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals in a no-decision Sunday.
  • Braves re-assigned RHP Chien-Ming Wang to minor league camp.
  • Braves released RHP Chien-Ming Wang.
  • Mariners signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract.
  • Royals signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract.

That one game line in there took place in spring training. Wang bounced around, as a once-proven entity without his best sinker. I don’t think anyone paid much attention when Wang recently turned up with the Royals, given where he’s been and given his age, but Wang, it seems, has his velocity back. The tweet embedded above names one Ron Wolforth. This is a picture of Wang and Wolforth. It’s a familiar-sounding name, and that’s because Wolforth is the guy who’s been credited with repairing Scott Kazmir.

To be fair, Kazmir is an N of 1. Just last season, we were talking about how Wolforth might’ve helped Barry Zito re-gain his velocity, and that didn’t really happen. But where these can be fun stories to think about in January and February, situations get more real in March. There are more eyes and radar guns in March. Zito didn’t actually get back to the high-80s. Here’s Wang, legitimately working again in the low- to mid-90s. That’s unlikely to be a freak accident.

I’m not here to discuss the merits of Wolforth’s program. I don’t know everything that he does, and I certainly don’t know everything that he did with Wang, but the results for Wang are all that matter. He went to Wolforth and now he’s a stronger pitcher, and by the video, he looks the same as he used to:

There’s maybe a distinction between new velocity and re-gained velocity. It’s not like Wang never threw 94-95 before. That’s what he had, then injuries took their toll, and the speed of the sinker slipped. Wang sustained a foot injury in 2008 that apparently altered his mechanics, and then in 2009 he needed significant surgery on his shoulder. By our numbers, Wang’s average fastball in 2006 was 93.1 miles per hour. Come 2013, it was down to 89.9. Wang says last year’s fastball was even slower. That’s what makes this newer news meaningful — we already know what Wang has been able to do in the majors with his sinker where he wants it.

A table of Wang’s major-league career:

Chien-Ming Wang, in the Majors
Split IP ERA- FIP- xFIP- GB% Hard% Fastball
2005 – 2008 628.2 85 88 94 61% 25% 92.5
2009 – 2013 163.2 159 127 112 54% 31% 90.9

Wang was always a ground-ball guy, but with the better sinker, he was an awful lot more effective. He got more grounders, he did a better job of avoiding sharp contact, and in the end he was a good deal better than your average starting pitcher. On the other side of the injuries, when the mechanics went and then the sinker went too, Wang got brutalized. Consider that, the first four years, Wang allowed an OPS of .685. After that, he allowed an OPS of .900. Wang went wrong. This is the first indication we have that he could be back on track.

I recognize how silly it is to be talking about the career peak of Chien-Ming Wang. It was a decade ago. When Wang finished second in American League Cy Young voting, that was the same season that Hanley Ramirez was the National League Rookie of the Year. Just speaking honestly, players don’t get back to being what they were 10 years earlier. Bodies simply don’t work the same. With pitchers, however, the biggest reason is because stuff declines. So what do you do when you have a pitcher whose stuff has bounced back? Just how cautious should we be with Wang, who was a starter last season, and who’s throwing in the 90s again?

By nature I’m an analytical optimist, and in March it’s probably even worse. For players, I prefer to see the upsides, and I know that’s what I’m doing here. I don’t know what role Wang might fill with the Royals; I don’t know if he’s going to get the chance to fill any role. He’s not young, and he hasn’t been good for a very long time. Chien-Ming Wang isn’t what he was in his 20s. Yet at the core, all Wang needs is his good sinker. There’s compelling evidence that Wang once again possesses his good sinker. Sometimes baseball can be that simple.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

I was hoping there was some meta commentary about the uncertainty of spring training numbers. Disappointing!

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Why are YOU giving Fangraphs money?

8 years ago
Reply to  Huron

If his Fangraphs salary comes out of the membership fees, obviously the more money that gets donated, the more he will get paid.