Chien-Ming Wang returned to the major league mound on Friday night in relief of the struggling AJ Burnett. In three innings of work, he allowed 2 runs on 6 hits (one home run) and one walk. That outing lowered his season ERA by 9 1/2 points… to a cool 25.00. Yikes.
Wang had been rehabbing what was diagnosed as essentially weakness in his hips, which reportedly resulted from a foot injury he sustained last season in Houston while running the bases. He had been doing relatively well in rehab starts in AAA, and the Yankees needed a long reliever for the game after burning the bullpen the night before. I mentioned above Wang’s results for the night, but let’s take a look at how he got there, through the eyes of pitch f/x.
His average fastball was a strong 92.5 mph, averaging about 10 inches of horizontal movement and 6.8 inches of vertical “rise.” How does that compare to the beginning of this season, when he was getting bombed, and to 2008, when he was pretty good? Here’s a grid, for easier comparison:
Game Avg. Velocity Max. Velocity Horiz. Movement (in.) Vert. Movement (in.)
2008 91.8 ~95 11 4.9
2009 90.7 ~93 9.3 5.7
Tonight 92.5 95 10 6.8
Alright, so we see that his velocity tonight was back where it should be, and his horizontal movement is creeping back up. But what’s up with the vertical movement? He’s a sinker-ball specialist, remember. The lower the value of the vertical movement, the more the ball is “sinking.” Curveballs, which have a sharp downward break, are in the negatives. Tonight, 50% of his balls in play were groundballs, might that have been a fluke?
Let’s look at some individual games and find out. One of his best games in 2008 happened on May 2nd against the Mariners. He had 5 K’s, 2 walks, in 6 innings, allowing one run. More importantly (for our purposes), the M’s had 10 groundballs versus only 2 flyballs. In that game, Wang had 14.5 inches of horizontal movement, which is just fantastic, and 4.5 inches of vertical movement, which is also great. Going back a month earlier to opening day (which I was at), Wang threw 7 innings with 16 (!) groundballs, versus only 3 flyballs. In that game, the numbers were almost identical to the gem against the Mariners. He had 13 inches of horizontal movement and 4.5 inches of vertical movement, both of those of course being fantastic for a sinker/2-seamer.
So it would seem that it’s the vertical movement that’s causing him problems. here’s the part that completely threw me when looking into this: Chien-Ming Wang’s vertical movement on his 4/8 and 4/18 starts of this season were 5 inches and 3.5 inches, respectively. Remember, in those games he got absolutely bombed to the tune of 5 innings and 15 runs. His ball was sinking, but it was still getting rocked. Here was my reaction upon seeing this.
My next stop was the location graphs available on Brooks Baseball. If you look at Friday’s game, you’ll see that there were very few balls just below the strike zone. Compare that to his opening day start from 2008, and you see some difference. The Friday start isn’t nearly as down in the zone. These two starts, both from earlier this season, are even worse. Ok, so that was a lot of links all at once. If you got confused with keeping track of what’s what, or you just don’t want to click through, here’s what it means: Wang isn’t keeping the ball down this year nearly as well as he did in 2008. While his ball is sinking, it’s not being thrown down in the zone enough to be effective.
Finally, here is what I believe to be the main reason for his problems. There are 5 links below, all of them are from games already referenced in this post. What the images show is release point data, from pitch f/x. Simply put, the 2008 release points are from good games, the 2009 release points are from bad games. Try opening each one in a different tab and switch back and forth to more clearly see the difference.
4/1/2008 5/2/2008 4/8/2009 4/18/2009 5/22/2009
Pay special attention to the first two versus the last three. See how the first two graphs have the cluster of points lower and farther away than the last three? This means that Wang’s release point in 2008 was lower than it currently is. As you can see, his stay on the DL has done nothing to change that–it is still higher than it was in two of his most dominant starts of 2008. And this is no small difference either–there’s about a foot difference between them.
The thing that troubles me most as a Yankee fan is that neither Wang nor the Yankees seem to realize this. Take this snippet from beat writer Pete Abraham on April 14th, after Wang allowed 8 runs in an inning of work the day before: “Wang seemed stunned. He said the issue was where he released the ball, which was off to the side instead of over the top. A
sinkerball pitcher wants to stand tall on the mound and throw the ball
on a downward plane. Otherwise the ball floats over the strike zone and you see what happens.” Despite having success in 2008 with a lower release point than he had in the early stages in 2009, he wanted to raise his release point even more.
To answer the question in the title, “did they fix him?” As it stands right now, I don’t think they did.
–Chien-Ming Wang’s release point has been discussed previously at River Ave. Blues.
–Thanks to Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs for pitch f/x data.