Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Curious Case of Chien-Ming Wang

There was a recent discussion over at Baseball Think Factory regarding the nature of Chien-Ming Wang’s success thus far. His statistical line is quite improbable to date. Consider: of 90 pitchers in the majors who have enough innings to qualify, Wang is 90th in strikeout rate, 25th in walk rate, 1st in home run rate, and 3rd in groundball percentage.

The formula is obvious: groundballs and lots of ‘em. But Wang’s strikeout rate is so far below anyone else’s, it’s ridiculous. Is it sustainable?

Let’s go over Wang’s repertoire. He throws basically two pitches: a sinker sitting at 93-94 and touching 96, and a mediocre slider. Al Leiter stated recently that Wang throws 85% sinkers. Now, he may have simply pulled that number out of his ass, but since I get the impression Leiter charts pitches in the booth, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It certainly seems from watching Wang that he throws the sinker almost exclusively. In fact, I’d compare him to Tim Wakefield, in that he pounds opponents with one pitch continuously and only mixes in the occasional breaking ball for shits and giggles.

His pitch selection is why he gets so few strikeouts. Despite his sinker’s great velocity and nasty movement, hitters are able to make contact because they know it’s coming. That they still can’t make solid contact is a testament to how late his fastball breaks. Then again, Brandon Webb uses his sinker just as much as Wang, yet he has no problem missing bats. So who knows.

Steven Goldman also got into the Wang speculation this week, bringing up the “hit lucky” theory. There’s no doubt that his BABIP is better than average, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. The DIPS theory is widely misunderstood, as pitchers do have some control over the matter. Watching Wang pitch, it’s easy to see why he consistently induces weak groundballs. His BABIP, as Goldman showed, isn’t even all that out of whack either. So his current success in this department should be sustainable.

Is he stranding more runners than normal? The AL average strand rate, according to The Hardball Times, is 70%. Wang’s? 70%. Nothing screwy there either.

Which brings us back to the strikeouts. Despite what Jim Kaat may lead you to believe, pitching to contact is not next to godliness. Strikeouts are hugely important for a pitcher. Think back to the 2003 ALCS. In Game Seven, Mike Mussina came in to clean up Roger Clemens’s mess. With runners on first & third and nobody out, Mussina got a strikeout and a double play, and just that quickly the threat was killed. The key to it all was the strikeout. Had Mussina gotten the DP first, a run crosses the plate. Groundball pitchers get out of jams with minimal damage. Strikeout pitchers get out of jams with no damage.

We’re talking about that magical situation of runner on third with less than two outs. In such spots, batters are hitting a cool .356 off Wang with just 4 K in 45 AB, a rate slightly worse than his overall mark. Imagine what missing a few more bats would do for him here.

So will that come back to haunt Wang? Can he be a frontline pitcher as is?

Well, let’s see what history tells us. There have been a dozen pitchers since 1900 besides Wang who have (1) pitched at least 150 innings; (2) had a K/9 less than half the league average; (3) had a BB/9 at least 25% better than the league average; and (4) had an ERA at least 20% better than the league average:

  • Slim Sallee 1919
  • Sherry Smith 1924
  • Huck Betts 1932
  • Watty Clark 1935
  • Freddie Fitzsimmons 1938
  • Sam Zoldak 1948
  • Sandy Consuegra 1954
  • Steve Kline 1972
  • Randy Jones 1978
  • Bill Lee 1979
  • Ricky Bones 1994
  • Kirk Rueter 2002

Not a fantastic list. Most of them were also well into their 30s and almost done as ballplayers in these seasons. The only decent comps for Wang are Steve Kline and Ricky Bones.

Kline started his career with the Yankees promisingly enough. He increased his innings and decreased his ERA each of his first three years, culminating in the season listed above, when he went 16-9 with a 2.40 ERA in 236 innings as a 24-year-old. That was the last good year he had. The Yankees traded him less than two years later. Kline was out of the majors for two years after that before resurfacing unsuccessfully in the Braves’ bullpen in 1977. His career was over less than 200 innings after his great ’72 campaign.

Bones also pitched for the Yankees, albeit only briefly in 1996. He lasted 11 seasons in the majors, managing a better-than average ERA in just three of them: ’94, ’95 & ’98, the last of which as a middle reliever.

So that was uninspiring. What’s more disturbing is that there are no repeat names. That is to say, no one has ever succeeded in the same way Wang has more than once. Gulp.

Okay, well, we could argue that no other pitcher has ever truly been like Wang. How many pitchers throw a mid-90s sinker with precision? Now how many of them don’t get strikeouts? Nobody comes to mind.

Is there a reason for his success, then, other than a fluke? Perhaps there’s something intrinsic to Wang that makes him pitch better with men on base. This is, in fact, perfectly logical. We know pitchers make a mechanical change with men on—they go to the stretch. That some pitchers adjust better to this than others should be obvious.

Why might Wang more easily transition to pitching from the stretch? Well, he’s essentially a one-pitch pitcher. And if he’s unable to generate quite as much power, that could theoretically increase his sinking action. Sounds promising; I like it. Let’s go to the data:

  • Bases empty: .235/.284/.315; 7 HR in 631 AB
  • Runners on: .303/.354/.421; 10 HR in 399 AB

There goes that theory. Wang is considerably worse from the stretch, highlighted by a staggering 126% increase in his home run rate. Come to think of it, we should’ve realized this theory was a dead end from his strand rate.

Perhaps Wang is beating up on inferior hitters? The average AL batter is hitting .275/.340/.438 this year. The average line of the batters Wang faced: .269/.339/.434. That’s hardly worth mentioning.


Coming soon: Part Two, Wang & the Magical Pecota Machine


Anonymous said...

How about the low home run rate? You put two one base and a home run sets you back three runs. Same with Wang, and a groundball - even a hit - might just fetch one run. After all, the only qualifying pitcher who gave up a few home runs is Francisco Liriano, who pitches far fewer innings and nobody believes that sub-2.0 ERA is sustainable.

Anthony said...

Yep, keeping the ball in the park is huge, and his ability to limit doubles and triples, too, is nearly as big. Everything Wang gives up is a single, which basically means you need to get three hits in an inning just to get one run. That's awfully tough.

Liriano is another fun one. Doesn't have a sinker like Wang's, but his slider and change are tough to get under.

sam said...

Hey, look who is blogging!!

Congrats Anf (I like it better than Anthony anyway), on the blog.

So are you going to start game threads here?

Anthony said...

You can call me whatever you prefer, that's fine with me.

I suppose if enough people stumble across this little corner of the internet and chime in, I might start game threads. We'll see what happens.

How's your blog coming along?

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