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April 20, 2009
The End of the World
There's no minimizing it: Chien-Ming Wang has been absolutely crushed in his first three starts this season, a stretch that includes Saturday's four-out, eight-run throttling that kicked off the Yankees' 22-4 loss at the hands of the Indians.
Wang, who when he's at his best is going to give up a lot of contact, is simply seeing all of his pitches knocked around the yard. He's faced 45 batters this year and struck out just two of them, the same number that have hit homers off of him. He's walked six. Of the 37 batters to make contact, 23 have hits. Of those 37, just 13 have hit ground balls, which is pretty much the disaster scenario for Wang.
Some time back, in speculating as to why a pitcher with Wang's velocity would strike out so few batters, I concluded that he works in such a small area of the strike zone that he produces contact by design. However, he's missing that area, and when you work in the strike zone, missing the good part by just a little bit-which is what we're seeing from Wang-is how you end up allowing fly balls to more than half the batters you face, fly balls that become extra-base hits. Wang has given up nine doubles and two homers, which would have been a month's work for him in his good seasons.
Yankee fans have seen this before, so it's instructive, as the airwaves are filled with an insistence that Wang be sent to the bullpen, the minors, or back to Taiwan, to think about how the last three-start stretch similar to this-with similar reaction-turned out. In August 2007, Mike Mussina had been pitching well for two months, with a 3.54 ERA and a 54/13 K/BB in his previous 12 starts. He had a streak of four straight wins and three straight quality starts, including 19
In the three starts, Mussina faced 59 batters and struck out just three of them. Nine hit doubles, and one homered. A different pitcher than Wang by type, Mussina's GB/FB ratio wasn't quite as jarring, but the results-25 of the 53 batters to make contact hit safely-were similar. For funsies:
IP H R BB SO HR AVG OBP SLG Wang 6.0 23 23 6 2 2 .622 .667 1.027 Mussina 9.7 25 20 5 3 1 .472 .508 .698
Wang's performance is "worse," but when the league is doing this to you, the difference between a .472 BA against and a .622 one is pretty insignificant. It's a difference of degree, not kind; Mussina lost his everything for three starts and got blasted all over the yard, generating calls for his removal from the rotation, the roster, the species. That's where Wang is today.
Here's where Mussina went after that. He came out of the bullpen on September 3 and threw 3
If you looked at Mussina on August 15, you wouldn't have seen the next three starts coming. If you'd looked at him on September 1, you wouldn't have seen a month of a 3.49 ERA coming. If you'd written him off at that point, you would have lost out on some good work.
Of course, 2007 is a long time ago. Here's a more recent example of a good pitcher who looked like he was in the tall grass:
The argument here isn't for doing nothing. The argument is for not panicking. There's not much reason to think that Wang isn't just a mechanical adjustment away, literally inches, from regaining his form as a mid-rotation starter. That's what fixed Sabathia: Some film work, some time with Carl Willis, some throwing off of the bullpen mound. Wang's last three starts are hideous, but you can look at recent Yankee history and see the same, you can look at a guy in the same rotation with Wang and see the same. If Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia can bounce back without demotions and releases and all of the other nonsense being suggested, Wang can as well.
Trust the pitcher.