November 4, 2011
Nationals Sign Wang
Teams know by now that dipping into the free agent starting pitching market and receiving a good return on investment is a tricky proposition. The Nationals are no different. After paying Jason Marquis eight figures over two seasons without looking better for it, Washington could not be blamed if they avoided the market altogether when scoping out middle or back-end options. Sure enough, the Nationals elected to add a familiar arm once free agency started, essentially re-signing Wang for one-year and $4 million, as well as some incentives that could drive the deal’s value upward.
The money will make this a polarizing deal. Wang is a different breed from most available starters in that he has not started much over the past few seasons. Since 2008, Wang has made 35 starts, amassing 199 1/3 innings pitched, a 5.24 earned run average, striking out 4.9 per nine innings pitched, and boasting a 1.61 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Having a higher earned run average than strikeout rate is a bad sign for most pitchers, but Wang gets some leeway because of his injuries and groundball tendencies.
What kind of injuries are we talking about? Try calf issues, a sprained foot, hip weakness, a torn ligament in his throwing shoulder, and even the flu over that stretch. Anything that could go wrong shy of back and elbow problems has gone wrong. Herein is the hidden factor: Wang has been in the Washington system since February 2010. If any team has a good beat on Wang’s health, it should be the Nationals. For them to commit to him in such a quick manner suggests the team doctors feel good about the medicals. They could be wrong, and Wang could damage himself in an unpredictable way, but for now, everything checks out okay.
Even so, the money is peculiar. Washington treated Wang well even when he failed to pitch for them, paying him $2 million in 2010 without receiving anything in return and then $1 million in 2011 for what amounted to 11 starts. Here, the Nationals have elected to give Wang a raise so he will stick around, almost spitting at the idea that he may take less money on the open market to show the team loyalty.
Adding to the oddness is how a $4 million payout compares to the contracts given to injury-prone starters just last winter:
Wang will make double or more than nine out of the 10 pitchers listed, with only Webb—who compares favorably to Wang in skill set—coming close to his payout. Even when considering inflation, Wang is making more money than pitchers with similar issues. The good news for the Nationals is that six of those 10 pitchers made more starts in 2011 than they averaged in 2008-2010, but the bad news is that money alone does not appear to a telling variable on whether a pitcher will exceed his average.
During Wang’s glory days, he succeeded despite subpar strikeout rates by generating high groundball rates and keeping the ball inside of the park. Wang’s sinker played a big part in both of those aspects and used to reach into the mid-90s. It maxed out just shy of 95 miles per hour during his return to the majors, suggesting he is where he used to be in velocity, if not movement. Before allowing seven home runs in 12 appearances in 2009, no pitcher with 500-plus innings from 2005-to-2008 allowed fewer home runs than Wang, and it wasn’t even close. Jake Westbrook finished with the second-fewest but yielded 18 more long balls in 20 fewer innings. Expect Wang to have issues succeeding if he continues to allow more than a home run per nine innings.
Conversely, if Wang can produce groundball rates similar to his in New York (often above 60 percent), he could find more success than before. The Nationals may have had the 12th-best unadjusted defensive efficiency and 11th-best when park-adjusted, but they ate up groundballs with no problem. Washington converted the second-highest rate of groundballs into outs in the National League and did so at near-equal pace to Tampa Bay and Texas—two teams with elite defenses. Ryan Zimmerman is one of the best third base defenders in the league, and Danny Espinosa is good at second base too. It might make sense for the Nationals to invest in a glove-heavy shortstop, should they feel uncomfortable trying Espinosa out on the other side of the bag.
The money is a sticking point, and Wang might make everything else a moot point if he gets hurt again, but the Nationals could have done worse as far as starting pitcher contracts go. Should it work out, then the upstart Nationals will have a solid middle-to-back-of-the-rotation innings eater to stick behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman and possibly in front of some combination of Ross Detwiler, Bradley Peacock, Tom Milone, and John Lannan. It isn’t the Phillies fearsome threesome, or the Braves superior six, but it could be the best rotation in Nationals’ history.