(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.

Advertisements

Famous for Something Else: Ernie Nevers

Ernie Nevers is a Hall of Famer in both Pro Football and College Football, a star of the early days of the NFL, and a member of the league’s 50th anniversary and 75th anniversary teams.

But he also had a baseball career, pitching for three seasons for the St. Louis Browns:

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP BK WP BF ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1926 24 SLB AL 2 4 .333 4.46 11 7 4 4 0 0 74.2 82 41 37 4 24 16 1 1 1 326 96 4.19 1.420 9.9 0.5 2.9 1.9 0.67
1927 25 SLB AL 3 8 .273 4.94 27 5 13 2 0 2 94.2 105 61 52 8 35 22 2 1 5 397 88 4.83 1.479 10.0 0.8 3.3 2.1 0.63
1928 26 SLB AL 1 0 1.000 3.00 6 0 2 0 0 0 9.0 9 4 3 1 2 1 0 0 0 36 146 4.79 1.222 9.0 1.0 2.0 1.0 0.50
3 Yrs 6 12 .333 4.64 44 12 19 6 0 2 178.1 196 106 92 13 61 39 3 2 6 759 93 4.56 1.441 9.9 0.7 3.1 2.0 0.64
162 Game Avg. 7 15 .333 4.64 53 15 23 7 0 2 217 238 129 112 16 74 47 4 2 7 922 93 4.56 1.441 9.9 0.7 3.1 2.0 0.64
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/20/2014.

He also pitched a bit in the Pacific Coast League:

Year Age AgeDif Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G IP H R ER BB WHIP H9 BB9
1928 26 -3.4 Mission PCL 14 11 .560 4.37 29 206.0 202 108 100 69 1.316 8.8 3.0
1929 27 -1.6 Mission PCL 7 8 .467 4.56 36 148.0 194 92 75 60 1.716 11.8 3.6
2 Seasons 21 19 .525 4.45 65 354.0 396 200 175 129 1.483 10.1 3.3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/20/2014.

So, that’s the baseball career of Ernie Nevers, another player who is famous for something else.

The Pitcher is the Third Most Important Position In Sports (behind Goalie and QB)

Not too long ago, I saw a ad for a Sports Illustrated book entitled NFL Quarterback: The Greatest Position In Sports.

I immediately recognized this as bull. Oh, maybe being the QB is the most glamorous position in sports, but that’s just one definition of greatest. As far as the greatest importance, quarterback isn’t it.

No, rather, a ice hockey goalie is. NFL teams can go far with average or only-slightly-above average QBs. Doug Williams had nearly as many career interceptions as he did touchdowns and never made a Pro Bowl, but he was hot at the right time to help Washington stomp Denver in January of 1988. Trent Dilfer threw more interceptions in his career than touchdowns, but his Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. The Jets got to within one game of the Super Bowl twice with Mark Sanchez as their quarterback. The Broncos won a playoff game with Tim Tebow at QB.

But, look at hockey, and I’m going to guess you’ll have trouble finding a champion who didn’t have a good goalie (and those that didn’t have good goalies that ended up winning probably had that goalie playing the best few weeks of his career). If a goalie is standing on his head, he can turn a mismatch into a even one, turn an underdog into a favorite, and make even the most unlikely of upsets possible (see: Miracle on Ice, Jim Craig, 1980 Olympics, which given his lack of success in the pros may fall into the “greatest few weeks of his life” category).

Now, to baseball, as Madison Bumgarner showed us this October, the third most important position in sports is the pitcher. Way back when, when men were men, arms were expendable and relievers were just guys who’d come in if somebody was doing really, really, bad, the pitcher was perhaps just as important as the goalie in hockey. Old Hoss Radbourn infamously singlehandedly pitched the 1884 Providence Grays to the title, throwing 678.2 IP, pitching in 75 of the team’s 112 games and starting 73 of them. His 59 wins that season is a record that will never be broken. In 1904, Jack Chesbro set the modern-era record for wins with 30 for the New York Highlanders, he pitched in 55 of the team’s 151 games, and started 51 of those appearances.

Those were the days when “wins” or “losses” meant far more than they do today, since pitchers were all but assured of going the full game, and their opposite numbers were expected to do the same, making the W-L record more analogous to a heavyweight fighter.

Since then, the worth of an individual pitcher has gone down. Having one or two or even three or four good pitchers is no guarantee of success like a good goalie or a good QB is. That’s because, well, it’s rare that they are in the game the whole time, and as good as they are they still can’t control their own offense. Just look at how Detroit’s great starting pitching has been constantly foiled in postseasons past by a suspect bullpen, or how Philadelphia’s “Big Four” starters of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt failed to even get to a World Series because their team’s offense took a holiday.

Still, as Bumgarner showed us this past month, there are still times that a pitcher can make all the difference. If Madison Bumgarner isn’t pitching, it’s likely that the Royals win the World Series. A single player isn’t supposed to decide an entire series. Not anymore.

But nobody told Bumgarner that. And he went on to show just how important the position of pitcher is.

For the Minnesota Twins, Saturday is May Day

Trevor May deals during a game in May in Rochester. Photo by Dan Glickman.

Trevor May deals during a game in May in Rochester. Photo by Dan Glickman.

For Minnesota Twins fans, it probably has been a question of “when”, not “if”, and it’s been a question they have been asking since April (probably earlier).

That question, of course, is: “When the hell will Trevor May get called up?” With every great start by him or his higher-ceiling-but-not-as-polished comrade, Alex Meyer, the cries would go louder and louder. Twinkie Town, perhaps the best (or at least most popular) Minnesota Twins blog on the web, wrote not one, but two facetious articles that implied that otherworldly powers beyond our understanding

The answer, at least for now, is “Saturday, August 9th.”

Yes, the day has come: Trevor May is going to pitch in the Major Leagues.

Having seen May all year this year (I’ve made a point of trying to get to as many of his starts as possible), May was acquired in the Ben Revere trade a few years back. In the past, apparently, he’s had control problems, and they still come up now and then, but in general he’s proven himself more than ready to try in the big leagues, posting a 2.93 ERA (4th best in the IL) and striking out 91 in a little over 95 innings. As I said earlier, he’s generally regarded as the lesser of the two pitching prospects who’ve helmed the Red Wings rotation (Alex Meyer, who has felt streaky at times this year), but he still could be something special, or at the very least be a good part of a rotation, especially one like the Twins’, which needs all the help it can get.

Then again, you never know with pitchers. Only time can tell.