(Blogathon ’16) Jason Cohen: Reminiscing about Chien-Ming Wang and What Could Have Been

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

Former Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang signed a minor league deal with the Royals, making that the eighth organization (ninth if you count a short stint in indy ball) the right-hander has been a part of since returning to pitching in 2011. After tearing his shoulder capsule during the 2009 season, Wang missed all of 2010 to recover and the Washington Nationals picked him up in hopes of getting the pitcher he once was for such a short amount of time. He last pitched in the big leagues during the 2013 season for the Toronto Blue Jays and it was a disaster, but it wasn’t always that way.

Signed as an amateur free agent by the Yankees in 2000, he made his professional debut at the age of 20. After missing the 2001 season to injury, it took him another four seasons to reach the majors. He wasn’t expected to be a star, but somehow he managed to turn into one, albeit not a very famous one. In 2005, he managed to pitch at an above-average level while the rotation fell apart around him. That year, Carl Pavano, Jared Wright, Kevin Brown, all broke down during the course of the season. Wang was hurt too, but he returned late in the second half and was even able to pitch in a playoff game. His first year was solid, but maybe not much to remember.

What followed, though, were probably two of the most important seasons for the Yankees in that decade. Between 2006 and 2007, Wang pitched to a 3.67 ERA and a 3.85 FIP over 417.1 innings, averaging somewhere between six and seven innings per start–something the current Yankees would love to dream on. He led the league with 19 wins in 2006, was the runner-up in the Cy Young vote to Johan Santana, and placed 24th in the AL MVP vote. His numbers weren’t the most dominating–a 3.9 K/9 rate over that time would attest to that–but his power sinker made him a real threat to hitters with a ground ball rate over 60%.

Some of his best games in 2006 include his two-hit, two-walk, complete game shutout of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. There was also a game where he produced a total of 20 ground balls outs in a single game against the Atlanta Braves. He even struck out 10 batters in 2007 on his way to complete game while allowing just two runs against the New York Mets. It seemed like he was always going into the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning with less than 100 pitches. Everyone was so focused on the strikeout that they never realized that contact could be such an effective means to utterly dominate your opponent. It’s a pity he had the literal worst defense in baseball playing behind him from 2005-2007, because who knows what things would have been like if they had even a league-average group then.

He ended up being worth 7.5 WAR over those two years, ranking right next to Mussina and Andy Pettitte during that period. He was top-20 in innings pitched, ranked third in ground ball percentage behind only Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb, and his 2.40 BB/9 was just outside of top 20 in baseball at the time. Wang was never the best, but when the Yankees needed him most, he was at least one of them. At a time when the Yankees were paying Carl Pavano not to pitch and had a disappointing two years with Randy Johnson, Wang filled in at the league minimum. He was invaluable.

The most exciting thing about it was that he arrived on the brink of a new day. He came up at a time where the Yankees were still filled with bloated contracts for underperforming veterans and his presence was a breath of fresh air. He made his debut just as Robinson Cano was entering the league and Melky Cabrera was getting a chance. Joe Torre was finally on his way out after a decade in the dugout. Pretty soon there would be Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, and though we have the benefit of hindsight to know how terrible that all worked out in the end, Wang was there before it was cool to be young and he was great.

Unfortunately not everything worked out as expected. As much promise as the 2007 season brought, 2008 proved to be the cruel reality check that none of us wanted. Hughes and Joba got hurt, and Wang, while rounding the bases in Houston, tore a ligament in his foot and a muscle in his leg to end his season in June. All these injuries and disappointing seasons likely led the Yankees to go heavy on that year’s free agent class, coming away with CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett to nail down their weakened and underperforming rotation. Many believe that Wang’s injury threw him off and he struggled in his return during the 2009 season before ultimately tearing his shoulder capsule and destroying the Wang we all knew.

I’ve written about Wang before, I even asked him to retire and put an end to the ghost that he has become because it was just too painful to watch. He’s a member of the Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees and he has a legacy in the Bronx that won’t go away with time. It’s just incredibly weird to think that you’ve peaked doing your life’s work before the age of 30 and it’s not really anyone’s fault. You can’t even say he just didn’t work out–he got hurt. Situations like this ruin–even end–people’s lives. I’m a few years away from 30 and would like to think that I haven’t come close to my peak, but if I knew it had already come and gone, I have no idea how I’d be able to keep doing what I was doing.

Then you look at what Wang has been doing and maybe it isn’t sad to see a 35-year-old man–already gone from the man he once was–continue to plug along. He made it once, he could make it again, but even if he doesn’t maybe there is something to look at, maybe even emulate, in Wang’s determination to do the only thing he very well might be good at. There’s no shame in that and if he pitches another 10 years, even if it’s at the Triple-A level, we should all be so lucky. In the meantime, I’ll remember who Wang was, but never ignore who he has become.

Jason Cohen is an editor at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley where he holds the world record for most articles written and it isn’t even close. He is an unapologetic Yankees fan who loves bat flips, calling people out when they say something offensive, and isn’t quite comfortable talking about himself in the third person. You can normally see his writing at Pinstripealley.com and his tweets at @Jason00Cohen.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

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One thought on “(Blogathon ’16) Jason Cohen: Reminiscing about Chien-Ming Wang and What Could Have Been

  1. Pingback: Every Piece from the 2016 Blogathon | The Baseball Continuum

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