Thursday, June 18, 2009

Whither Wang?

Or perhaps given his performance this year, wither Wang?

As we wait out the rain, I'd like to take a look back on CMW's start last night and ponder what happens next. Well, we know what will happen next; he'll start against the Braves on Tuesday (where he'll have to bat and run - uh oh). But what after that?

Without question, last night's start was far and away the best Wang has made this year. Amongst his six starts, he set season highs last night in innings pitched (5) and Game Score (45), tied a season low in hits allowed (6), and set a season low in runs allowed (3). But even if it was his best, was it good?

Let's start with the good parts. For the first time this year, CMW made a start and gave his team a chance to win. 3 ER in 5 IP is not a Quality Start, nor should it be considered one, but he kept his team in the game while he was on the hill. He made it through 23 batters and 91 pitches, both season highs, and threw a respectable 59% of his pitches for strikes.

He induced ground balls like the old CMW, recording 10 of his 16 outs (one extra due to the wild pitch 3rd strike to Corey Patterson) on ground balls, including a doubleplay. Of the six hits he gave up, two were seeing-eye grounders just beyond the reach of Robinson Cano, and a third was a slow roller to A-Rod that resulted in a blown call at first. The triple allowed to Nick Johnson was well struck and just out of the reach of Melky Cabrera. One could make the argument that Melky's dive was ill-advised, and that had he laid up on the play he might have held Johnson to a double and potentially prevented Christian Guzman from scoring all the way from first.

Wang also struck out 4, just one short of his season high. Despite all his numerous failings this year, Wang has shown improvement in one area: strikeouts. His 4 Ks in 5 IP last night was right in line with his 2009 rate of 7.2 K/9, and is well ahead of his career average of 4.0 K/9 entering 2009. In general, sinkerballers pitch to contact and don't register many Ks, the main reason statheads are concerned about their ability to sustain success. If Wang's sinker continues to betray him, he'll need to miss bats to mitigate the damage.

As Jay mentioned in the recap, Wang was victimized by a bad call and a couple bad breaks. But such is life. Pitchers have to face things like that seemingly every start; Wang shouldn't be graded on a curve just because of his struggles this year. So what was bad about Wang's start last night?

First, he needed far too many pitches. He's likely still building arm strength given the way he's been used this year, so throwing pitches isn't necessarily a bad thing. It was good to see him cross the 90 pitch threshhold for the first time all year. But needing 91 pitches to get through 5 innings is not good, and is not what you want to see on a start by start basis. Wang is a guy that pitches to contact, so he shouldn't be going that deep into counts to begin with. The dropped ball on the would-be CS, the third strike wild pitch, and the blown call at first all cost Wang outs and resulted in extra pitches. But as I said above, these things happen. Even in the innings that he didn't have those issues he only once came in at the magic number of 15 pitches.

Secondly, he had problems with both his release point and his location. This is the big one, as it's been the root of his problems all year. In the first inning particularly, Wang left several sinkers up in the zone, including many that drifted horizontally over the heart of the plate rather than diving on a vertical plane. Posada also mimed an over-the-top motion to Wang several times, reminding him to watch his release point. Wang improved on this as the game progressed, but didn't eliminate the issue. The HR Adam Dunn launched halfway to Yonkers in the fourth came on a sinker left up in the zone.

All in all it was a step forward in as much as it earned Wang another start and he didn't get his teeth kicked in. But I'm not convinced that he's "back", only that he showed some improvement last night and for the most part didn't get battered on his mistakes. His 2009 high Game Score of 45 would have ranked in the bottom third of his starts in 2007 or 2008.

After watching Phil Hughes blow through the sixth and seventh on just 24 pitches with 2 Ks against just 1 H, I find it hard to believe that he doesn't offer a better chance at winning every fifth day. Wang may or may not get right pitching as a starter, but he almost certainly won't fix his problems if he's buried as the mop-up man in the pen. The question I'm having a hard time answering is how long should he be given to correct his problems? Step forward or not, the line he turned in last night isn't going to cut it every time out.

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