WILL YOU, WON’T YOU, WILL YOU, WON’T YOU JOIN THE DANCE?
That’s the question being asked about Chien-Ming Wang today, as the Yankees ponder what to do with their unpleasantly elevated groundballer. Despite yesterday’s extended Spring Training action, which featured an uncharacteristic 11 strikeouts, the Yankees’ brass were not impressed by Wang’s work against the Phillies’ most minor Minor Leaguers. Reports from the front suggest that Wang’s velocity was down and his sinker was still not operating at its proper depth. Every human capable of typing is now intimating that Phil Hughes (3-0, 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings, three walks, 19 strikeouts) will take his scheduled Tuesday start against the Tigers.
This is as it should be. You can throw out Wang’s strikeouts against toddlers and tyros in the Minor League depths — however screwy Wang’s main offering is right now, a Major League-quality slider and changeup is tough for a kid to beat. The Yankees weren’t looking for an artistic success here, they were looking for sinking heat, and they didn’t get it, at least not to their satisfaction. The Yankees are talking about building up Wang’s arm strength, but one wonders what they can truly do about it if Spring Training wasn’t a good enough opportunity for Wang to recoup. Further, if Wang’s arm doesn’t snap back, can Wang find a way to be successful at a lower velocity?
As I pointed out in a previous entry, despite the groundball fillip in Wang’s very vanilla game, history is working against him. It is very unusual for a pitcher with such a low strikeout rate to survive for any length of time — everything has to work perfectly for the balls they allow in play not to kill them. The only pitchers to throw over 1,000 career innings since 1990 with a strikeout rate of 4.5 or lower: Carlos Silva, Kirk Rueter, Ricky Bones, Bob Tewksbury, Brian Anderson, Zane Smith, Mike Moore and Steve Sparks. Pitchers with a lower strikeout rate relative to league in 500 or more innings, 1990 to present: Aaron Cook, Jimmy Anderson, Rueter, John Doherty, Silva and Horacio Ramirez.
Entering this season, Wang had the lowest ERA of any of these pitchers by more than half a run, though if he pitched at sea level, Cook would probably be right there with him. Ironically, Cook has also been battered this season — not to the extent that Wang has, but a 10.22 ERA still qualifies as a battering — for the same reason: his previously healthy groundball/fly ball ratio has crashed, presumably because he too is elevating his pitches.
The great advantage that Wang had was that, in allowing only about six percent of hits against him to go for extra bases, it was very difficult for the opposition to build a rally. He took doubles, triples, and home runs out of the game, meaning that in order to score even one run in a frame, the opposition had to hit three to four balls through Derek Jeter before Wang got three outs. With Wang having lost or misplaced this skill, the opposition has the potential for explosive innings restored. We should emphasize “lost” before “misplaced,” because this season’s breakdown may only be the culmination of a breakdown that was forming right from the beginning. Wang’s line drive rates have been rising and his groundball rates falling consistently since 2005.
Hughes is a strikeout pitcher. He took his lumps last year and he may take them again, but that is the way of young pitchers. John Danks was 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA as a 22-year-old in 2007. Last year he went 12-9 with a 3.32 ERA. Jon Lester’s ERA in his first 27 appearances was 4.68 … Jim Palmer’s ERA in his first two seasons was 3.54, which sounds great, except that the league ERA was lower than that.
Hughes will reward patience, be it for the Yankees or some other team in the event that patience is in short supply. Should he be able to avoid a permanently stuff-altering injury, his ability to get batters to swing and miss means that someday the length of Wang’s entire career will fit within the span of his, and that will be true if Wang can fix himself now or not. It will also give the Yankees a pitcher better adapted for postseason action. In evolutionary terms, Wang’s overspecialization limits his horizons. If Tuesday does turn out to belong to Hughes, it could, finally, represent the dawning of a new age.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Joe Torre may have another special team on his hands in Los Angeles (though it might not be too difficult looking special in this year’s NL West), and if they succeed, he’ll have the last argument in his already-signed, sealed, delivered Hall of Fame bid: that he couldn’t work with young pitchers (Chad Billingsley, for starters, is putting the lie to that). I’m still not convinced he wouldn’t get suckered in by Juan Pierre if Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier weren’t all hitting like it was 1930. Still, that’s my inference, not his action, so all credit to him. Also all credit to him for going to Jonathan Broxton for a 1.2 inning save in a close game (2-0) at Houston last night.
? Good for the Angels, beating the Tigers despite requiring a spot-start from extreme journeyman Matt Palmer, 30, after Darren Oliver hit the disabled list.
? In spite of myself, I am starting to believe that Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz — .320/.407/.622 in 46 games between this year and last — is for real.
? I think we owe it to Adam Eaton to point out his rare good starts. Last night he pitched 7.1 innings against the White Sox, allowing two runs, walking none, and striking out nine. The O’s should trade him while he’s hot.