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March 25, 2007

Looking Ahead to 2007: Chien-Ming Wang
by SG

"For a baseball fan to fail to see that strikeout rates are closely tied to career length, I would argue, is very much like a basketball fan failing to notice that basketball players tend to be tall."
Bill James from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

No one can deny that Chien-Ming Wang's career to this point has been successful. However, his K rate has been historically low, which is typically a poor indicator for career longevity. However, Wang has one thing that the majority of low K pitchers did not have, and that's top-shelf stuff.

Wang's projections for 2007 aren't particularly good, mainly because he's such a statistical anomaly.

Wang was great last year, saving 28 runs above the average pitcher. The projection systems think he's going to lose 20 runs of value, although at least part of that is based on a projected shortfall of 40 innings. I do have concerns about Wang's health, because he went from a career-high 150 innings in 2005 to 218 last season and because of the rotator cuff scare in 2005, but he was strong all year so it may not be that much of a concern. With the recent news of his hamstring injury, I guess I should have been concerned. It sounds like Wang shouldn't miss more than 2-3 starts thankfully.

To me, Wang fits a profile similar to Mariano Rivera. There are players who operate in an area where projection systems designed for the collective major league baseball population just won't work. I think the Marcel projection is probably the fairest one because of that.

Wang has succeeded despite his low K rate because he does two other things well. He has good control, and he keeps the ball in the park. Opponents have slugged just .373 against Wang so far in his career. If he can continue to do that, he should be ok. Here's how Wang's ERA and FIP tracked over 2006.

Wang outperformed his FIP this season, but not to a level that would show he was extremely lucky in 2006. Wang's FIP of 3.96 ranked 15th among ERA-qualified AL starters last season.

One thing Wang's struggled with in his career to this point is pitching on the road. Here are Wang's career Home/Road splits, including batted-ball types.

For whatever reason, Wang gets a lower percentage of grounders on the road. He gives up more fly balls and line drives as a result.

Wang's lefty-right splits are not as extreme as I thought they might be.

Lastly, these splits are pretty interesting to me. Here's how Wang has done based on the # of outs.

Here's the link to the tables above for those who can't see them on the blog.

For whatever reason, with two outs, Wang's K rate spikes up considerably. This tells me he may have the skill to strike out batters more frequently than he has to this point, but is comfortable with his current approach since it's working. It's worth mentioning that even if you apply that 12.2% K/BF to all his innings, it's still just a K rate of about 4.5 per 9 innings.

I know what the numbers say, but I also know what I see when I watch Wang pitch. Wang should be able to continue to succeed in the majors, although he may have to make some adjustments along the way if his current style stops working. I think he's talented enough to do that, and I think he'll be fine, perhaps with some growing pains as he makes those adjustments.

On a different note, Boston moved Jon Papelbon to closer after I ran the Diamond Mind Projection blowout, so I re-ran 250 with each of the four projection systems to see what it changed. I had to adjust Papelbon's projections using Dan Szymborski's tool for converting starters to relievers. I replaced Paplebon in the rotation with Julian Tavarez and Jon Lester pitching 50% each.

Here's a comparison of the two runs.

Basically, there was no difference in the regular season. The improvement at the end of the game is mitigated by the weakening of the rotation. It does make Boston a better short-series team though.