July 10, 2007
So Wang He's Right, and Mr. Roberts
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I spent Sunday afternoon in Box C342 in the left-field grandstand at Yankee Stadium, thanks to some friends' inability to use their tickets. This doesn't sound that significant, but it is; it was just the second Yankee game I'd attended since 1995. After enduring the 1980s while growing up in a Mets town, suffering through the managerial turnstile and perennial August collapses and the 1986 World Series, I moved away to Los Angeles and watched the team that was a joke during my youth become a dynasty again. I experienced the four World Championships in five years and the 12 consecutive postseason appearances from a distance.
So walking back into the ballpark was exciting and strange all at once. First of all, the sheer size of the crowd was a new thing. After all, when I was coming to the Stadium regularly, you could decide to go to a game at 6 p.m., show up at 6:30, and be in a Main Reserve seat along the baselines for $15. Now, you can't get into the lower bowl for less than $50, and you can't get between the bases without a credit check and a double-digit Q rating.
The entire feel of the place was different as well. When I was getting to 15-20 games a summer as a teenager, the team was competitive, but not necessarily successful. Now, there's definitely an arrogance about the place, a sense that this is where championships happen; there's almost a sense of entitlement. I've often argued that people who say Yankee fans are arrogant and spoiled have no frame of reference, that they forget the 1982-1993 period that shaped half a generation, myself included. After one day at the ballpark, I have a better understanding of the perception. It's not something I can necessarily quantify, just a sense, from the copy on T-shirts to the stadium signage to the way the crowd reacts to events.
The game itself was great for Yankee fans, but didn't lend itself to much analysis. The Yankees got three-run homers from Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez en route to waltzing to a 12-0 win. Chien-Ming Wang was effective, scattering five singles in 6 1/3 innings, striking out three and walking two. My seats weren't the best ones for breaking him down, but from where I sat, he appeared to throw two fastballs, one straight and one with sink, almost exclusively. He got 14 groundball outs, and I'm hard-pressed to remember any balls that the Angels drove off of him.
Wang is a fascinating topic, as he's now up to 65 career starts and 438 2/3 innings with a career strikeout rate that's actually slightly below his career ERA, 3.51 to 3.67. He's striking out more batters in 2007 than he has before, but his 4.14 K/9 is still well below par for a pitcher in 2007, the kind of rate that would normally have us clucking over his imminent demise. Wang, however, is not a soft tosser, a pitcher who works at max effort just to survive--his fastball is generally clocked in the low 90s, and he touches 94 with it. He works in the strike zone almost the way Greg Maddux did in his prime, getting early-count outs on contact. Wang's career mark of 3.39 P/PA is very low because of this.
I've started to think of Wang, to an extent, as the pitching version of hitters such as Ichiro Suzuki, Don Mattingly, or Kirby Puckett. These hitters never drew a lot of walks in their primes, because when they swung the bat-which they did with some frequency-they would make solid contact and put the ball in play. They didn't work a lot of deep counts in part because of their contact rates. Wang is the same way; his strikeout and walk rates reflect his presence in the strike zone. It works for Wang because the action on his pitches prevents solid contact, and in particular, power. Wang has allowed just 27 home runs in his career, and just six this season. His career ISO allowed of .104 is low for a pitcher in the modern game.
So while Wang is not striking out many hitters, he's also not allowing walks or power, which means to beat him, you have to string hits together. His high groundball rate (2.92 career G/F) also leads to a number of double plays turned, wiping out the singles he inevitably gives up. He controls the running game--basestealers are 24-for-43 against him in three years. His batting average on balls in play has been lower than the league average, and lower than the Yankee average, but not by a lot (.270, .293, and .280 in his three seasons). Wang may be one of the pitchers who exerts influence over his own BABIP, although it still may be too early to make that determination.
If Wang were left-handed and missing ten MPH on his fastball, we'd lump him in with the Tommy John class of pitchers. Instead, as he is, we're not sure what to do with him. It's fair to say that merely looking at his strikeout rate and making a clucking sound isn't going to suffice. It appears Wang is the exception, a right-handed pitcher who isn't going to strike out many hitters, but who does everything so well that he'll be successful in spite of that.
A week ago, I wrote this:
If the players and the fans alight on the same starter, the players' second choice goes, even if he's a marginal All-Star. Shea Hillenbrand made a team this way once, and this year, Brian Roberts owes his spot to this process. Sensible roster construction would allow Orlando Cabrera, clearly more deserving than Roberts, to make the team, even if it would mean someone plays a few innings out of position.
This was, as it turns out, a really stupid thing to write. Many, many, many people e-mailed me to note that Brian Roberts was eighth in the AL in VORP (at the time; he's 10th this morning), and that he was by far the best second baseman in the league. They also pointed out that he was, statistically, having a better year than Cabrera, outpointing him on a rate basis and in overall value.
The readers, as usual, were completely correct. I simply whiffed on Roberts, missing just how great a season he was having. I can chalk it up to my current displacement, the fact that I haven't been watching as much baseball as usual and have been distracted by a move and a housing search, but really, those are weak excuses. If a guy is the tenth-best player in the league, I need to know that, and if I don't, I deserve to be slammed.
What's amusing is that when I wrote about my All-Star ballot, I mentioned that I wished I'd voted for Roberts. I know how good he's been the last few seasons, the class of a fairly weak crop. I voted for Ian Kinsler, which was a mistake, one I acknowledged when I wrote the column. So I screwed up on both ends of this discussion.
Now, it is worth pointing out that at the time I filled out my ballot, Brian Roberts wasn't having nearly as great a year as he is now. He had a poor April, and that month was dragging down his overall numbers well into May. Just to pick a date, I filled out my All-Star ballot on May 9 at that night's Angels/Indians game. This is what Roberts has hit since then (thanks, Baseball-Reference.com): .348/.429/.457 in 53 games, and going 15-for-17 on the bases.
So, yes, Brian Roberts is an All-Star, and he's an All-Star ahead of any other second baseman in the league, as well as over almost every other middle infielder. I was wrong to dismiss him, and as always, I thank the readers for keeping me honest.