The Nationals signed right-handed pitcher Chien-Ming Wang to a one-year contract today. The deal is worth $2 million plus an extra $3 million in incentives.
As far as the baseball world is concerned, it was just a matter of time. For the past two weeks, every news source has indicated that the Nationals were favorites to sign Wang. It finally happened today, and it is just one of many moves that Mike Rizzo has completed to improve National League-worst Nationals for 2010.
Still, many questions surround the Wang signing. First and foremost, has Wang fully recovered from his injury that limited him to 42 innings pitched in 2009 and 95 in 2008? Second, assuming that Wang is fully healthy and ready to pitch in 2010, will he regain his 2006 and 2007 form in which he won 19 games each year?
I can answer this simply and quickly by saying I do not know. Neither, for that matter, does Mike Rizzo or any other executive in baseball. For that reason, a pitcher with a 55-26 career win-loss record and 3.99 FIP signed a one-year, $5 million contract. In fact, if we take a step back, the unknown health status of Wang is the reason he was non-tendered by the Yankees in the first place. This last point is very scary. It proves one of two things: a.) the Yankees know something about Wang’s rehab that other teams do not; or b.) they are very confident with their rotation (which currently consists of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes). Given Chamberlain’s inability to pitch more than 100 innings effectively and Hughes’ inconsistent performance as a starter, one would think the Yankees would want to retain as much rotation depth as possible. Most likely, Brian Cashman just could not find a spot on the team for Wang.
As an avid reader of Fangraphs.com, I was navigating the site today when I found an article written about Wang. In it, Joe Pawlikowski suggests that Wang’s release point has changed since his successful years in the Bronx. Wang, who typically threw three-quarter, was releasing the ball at a more overhand angle. As a result, Wang’s out-pitch, his almighty sinker, was acting more like a flat two-seam fastball. The results are predictable: when a sinkerballer’s sinker does not sink, the ball travels fast and hard out of the ballpark. Wang’s GB/FB ratio dropped to 1.98 in 2009, .72 below his career mark of 2.70. His line drive rate actually fell, but that was outweighed by his ballooning FB% (27.0 % compared to career mark of 22.2%) and HR/FB % (17.1 % compared to career mark of 8.2%). Besides being astronomic, those rates are unsustainable.
The outcome of Wang’s extremely high flyball rates was 1.50 HR/9, or 0.95 higher than his career mark of 0.55. That is a huge difference. Even the balls that stayed in play were hit to places where there were no fielders, as evidenced by a .397 BABIP last season.
Upon combining all of these numbers, you will get a result that looks something like a 1-6 win-loss record with a 9.64 ERA. Even the most casual baseball fan can tell you how bad that line is. The good news is we know why Wang pitched poorly in 2009. The bad news is we do not know if he will be able to regain his form.
Needless to say, if Wang regains his form, $5 million for a pitcher of his caliber is a bargain. If he is, as they say, “damaged goods,” $5 million is a big waste. This deal is one that I would classify as medium-risk, high-reward. Even if Wang does not pitch as well as he has, a team like the Nationals has nothing to lose.
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Written by Sam Diament