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March 8, 2006

Looking Ahead to 2006 - Chien-Ming Wang
by SG

From the depths of allegedly the worst farm system in the history of organized baseball, emerged a Taiwanese flame-thrower who did not strike anyone out. Somehow, despite this inability to whiff batters, and playing in front of a defensively challenged infield, Chien-Ming Wang managed to pitch 116 innings to an ERA of just 4.02, and helped the Yankees rebound from an 11-19 start to win the AL East.

Wang was called up on April 30, and beat the Blue Jays 4-2. From there through July 8, Wang went with a 3.89 ERA. Then came the news that Wang had a rotator cuff tear and would miss the season.A check with James Andrews downgraded the severity of Wang's injury, and he was able to return in September to make five more starts.

Wang had major shoulder surgery in 2000 that caused him to miss 2001. Here's a pre-season scouting report on Wang.

Wang's low strikeout rate is the chief reason to be concerned about his performance in 2006. The injury history and the fact that last year was a career-high in innings is another. However, a look at Wang's BB rate and K rate over the course of 2005 gives some cause for optimism.

Wang's BB rate decreased slightly and his K rate increased slightly as the season progressed. Unfortunately, the HR rate creeped up a bit as well.

Wang was an extreme groundball pitcher last year, which kept his HR rate low enough to pitch to a 4.22 FIP, despite his obscenely low strikeout rate.

How extreme of a groundballer can be seen in the pie chart below (thanks to Gotham Dark Knight for upgrading us so we are no longer one of the worst Yankee blogs):

HR rate tends to correlate more closely to fly ball rate than to itself every year, which is reflected in the statistic xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching), which normalizes a pitcher's HR rate to 10% of his fly ball rate. Wang's xFIP was 4.39, which is still a very good number for a young starting pitcher, and would make him an average starter.

The graph below shows Wang's ERA and FIP over the course of 2005. As you can see, they line up very closely post-surgery. As much as people want to point to Wang's K rates as "proof" that he was a complete fluke, there is a mountain of other evidence that shows that they are wrong. He pitched about as well as his final numbers say he did.

While I am concerned about his ability to miss bats, I'm less concerned from watching him pitch. This is a guy who throws in the low to mid 90s with sick downward movement. For comparison, here are Wang's peripherals from the minors vs. the majors:

Minors Majors
HR/9: .41 .7
BB/9: 2.07 2.48
K/9: 7.16 3.64

I think he will bump his K rate up a bit, enough to off-set any regression in either his control or his HR rate.

The other concern, which I think is far more valid, is Wang's durability. Prior to last season, Wang's high for innings in a season was 149.1. Last year he pitched 150.1.

I think the Yankees need to be careful with him this year, and try to skip him a few times if possible. I wouldn't want to see him pitch more than 170-180 innings this year.

So how about the projection systems and what they see for Wang in 2006?

In 2005, Wang was responsible for 43 pitching runs created over 116 innings, which was actually about 3 runs below average due to his low K rate. Still, average to slightly below average pitching is still a valuable thing, particularly for a strong offensive team.

The projection systems call for something in the neighborhood of 140 innings for Wang. I have no idea if he will get hurt or not, but if he is healthy all season, this is a low estimate. I'll assume that he gets up to 180 innings or so this year, and taking the average of the 3 projections would make Wang worth about 69 PRC.

As far as a comparison to last year, I'll say Wang is taking his 116 innings and then another 64 from the dearly departed Kevin Brown. Wang 2005 + 64 innings of Brown 2005 were worth 60 PRC, so 2006 Wang should be about 9 more PRC, or close to one win.

So now we have 570 innings taken up by RJ, Moose, and Wang, at a total value of 264 PRC. Compared to 570 innings from RJ, Moose, and Wang + Brown last year, which were worth 254 PRC. There's another win upgrade, relative to last year.

Spring Training Update
The Yankees shut the Twins out 5-0 yesterday.

Hideki Matsui is killing the ball right now, and Jorge Posada went yard off Brad Radke. Kevin Thompson showed that he still has some learning to do in the OF, horribly reading a fly ball from Torii Hunter that became a triple, but following it up with very nice catch later in the game.

Shawn Chacon pitched three solid innings, although his velocity is still not where I'd like to see it. The man just seems to know how to pitch. Mariano Rivera made his spring debut and threw 6 pitches in a 1-2-3 inning.

I wouldn't pay too much mind to the Giambi and Sheffield situation yet. Older guys who are just reporting to camp are a bit sore? Hardly a shock, and hardly worth worrying about, yet.