Grasping Wang

Despite some technical difficulties that delayed its start and had the old rage-o-meter in the red for a few minutes, my chat at BP yesterday was pretty fun, lasting nearly three hours — much longer than I intended to go. Tons of questions about JAWS, Frank Thomas, Trevor Hoffman, the MVP races, the Hit List Comedy Gold awards, Chien-Ming Wang, a good deal of busting on the Blue Jays and Tony LaRussa.

Wang was a big topic of discussion at BP yesterday because Nate Silver took a look at the postseason rotations using his Quick ERA toy to assess “true” rotation quality. The QERA formula is QERA =(2.69+K%*(-3.4)+BB%*3.88+GB%*(-0.66))^2 where K% and BB% are the number of strikeouts and walks per plate appeareance, and GB% is a pitcher’s groundball/flyball ratio expressed as a percentage [GB/(GB+FB)]. Why use just these? As Nate writes, “These three components — K rate, BB rate, GB/FB — stabilize very quickly, and they have the strongest predictive relationship with a pitcher’s ERA going forward. What’s more, they are not very dependent on park effects, allowing us to make reasonable comparisons of pitchers across different teams.”

The upshot of all of this is that WANG’s QERA was estimated at 4.58, nearly a run more than his actual ERA of 3.63, and not exactly what you’d want from a #1 starter in a postseason series, 19 wins be damned. Silver wrote:

Wang is one of those pitchers who, like Tom Glavine, continually manages to post an ERA that is far superior to his peripherals. Even after accounting for his superior groundball rate, the numbers say he’s a #3 starter, not a #1. What’s unusual is the way in which Wang is getting lucky. His BABIP is very normal, and he’s actually been a bit worse with runners in scoring position. So what gives? Wang has allowed just a .230/.271/.316 line to the hitter leading off the inning, and it’s very hard to score runs when your leadoff man gets on only 27% of the time. There might be some element of skill in attacking leadoff hitters, and Wang is undoubtedly a smart pitcher who understands good situational baseball. Nevertheless, this has to be mostly luck, and the secret sauce reminds us that finesse pitchers tend to get creamed in the playoffs. This is a very vulnerable rotation, especially with both Johnson and Mussina nursing injuries.

The “secret sauce” of which Nate speaks is from another one of his articles, an adaptation of a chapter from Baseball Between the Numbers where he and Dayn Perry examined more than a century’s worth of playoff teams to see which factors correlated best with postseason success. In fact, only three passed the test of statistical significance; they are:

• A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate
• A good closer, as measured by Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL)
• A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average FRAA

Following up on this, my pal Nick asked about Wang:

Nick Stone (East Village, NYC):[A]s someone who watches a lot of Yankees games do you think that Chien Ming Wang’s success has a lot less to do with luck than his strikeout rate would indicate? Wang consistently hits the mid 90s with lots of movement, has allowed only 12 hr in 212 IP, and seems to be able to maintain a 3-1 G/F ratio in his sleep. While I usually shy away from scout terms like “stuff”, I do think there is more to Wang than his a perusal of his stats would suggest. In my mind, this guy is clearly not a Granny Gooden/Kirk Reuter with a razor-thin margin for error.

Jay Jaffe: I do think there’s something to be said for Wang’s stuff, his mid-90s velocity, his ability to keep the ball on the ground and avoid home runs; in fact, given that he also has allowed just 9 steals with 11 CS, I’d say we’re looking at a Tommy John-family pitcher minus the lefthandendess, and that’s a good thing because those guys tend to last longer than cockroaches.

That said, a good portion of the reason for his success is that the Yankee defense has improved in terms of efficiency; their .707 is 2nd in the AL to Detroit whereas it was 10th last year. I see that as a result mainly of last year’s outfield being absent for most of this year, but some improvement in the infield may have also taken place.

The Tommy John family of pitchers has nothing to do with the surgery; it’s a concept Bill James introduced in his 1984 Baseball Abstract:

1. they are left-handed
2. they are control-type pitchers
3. they cut off the running game very well
4. they receive excellent double-play support
5. they allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower than normal for a control pitcher
6. they are able to win while allowing an unusually high number of hits per game
7. their won-loss records tend to be very team dependent, often more exaggerated than their teams’–that is, a higher winning percentage than a winning team’s or lower than a losing team’s

Wang meets all of these criteria except for the first. With a 3.14 K/9 rate, 0.50 HR/9, 9.62 H/9, the aforementioned shutdown of the stolen base, the number two ranking in the entire major leagues in total Double Plays behind him (33), and a 19-6 (.760 winning pct.), there’s really no doubt about it; if anything, what’s interesting is that as a righty, he’s got the platoon advantage more often than most TJ-family pitchers, though lefties and righties’ splits against him are basically indistinguishable (.275/.321/.384 for lefties, .279/.319/.367 for righties).

One thing I didn’t check but notice in retrospect: Wang’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (.289) is actually much HIGHER this year than it was last year (.270), suggesting that situational pitching, as Nate pointed out, may be a bigger part of his story than the improved Yank defense. Also, his ERA is lower by 0.39, but while his K/PA has dropped 11 percent, it’s his HR/9 where the real improvement lies: a 41 percent drop from last year.

Wang was still the topic of discussion when I went to last night’s Yankees-Orioles game with Alex Belth. The lineup, which included Jason Giambi for the first time in a week, might have been on the short list for the most devastating Murderer’s Rows ever; each player has at least one All-Star appearance to his credit:

1. Johnny Damon, CF
2. Derek Jeter, SS
3. Bobby Abreu, RF
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Jason Giambi, DH
6. Gary Sheffield, 1B
7. Hideki Matsui, LF
8. Jorge Posada, C
9. Robinson Cano, 2B

When one of the hottest hitters in the majors — Cano is batting .369/.385/.656 with 23 2b, 11 HR, and 51 RBI since August 8, and is now running second in the AL Batting Average race, ahead of Jeter — is hitting ninth, you’re talking serious firepower, an embarrassment of riches. The game was a rout, with the Yanks chasing Oriole starter Kris Benson in the third inning, with Giambi, Abreu and Posada bashing homers off of him. Giambi’s was his first since August 20, a span of 65 at-bats; he’s been slowed by a torn ligament in his wrist that has Shef learning first base. Abreu’s was his third in as many games and his fourth in eight games; he’s hitting .345/.437/.536 in pinstripes.

Benson departed for Bruce Chen, who got the final out of the third, then was torched for five runs himself in the fourth; he knocked Rodriguez down, at which point I shouted, “Hey tough guy, how many outs you got?” The answer was none; Jeter had walked and Abreu had singled — giving way to pinch-runner Bernie Williams — following Damon’s homer. A-Rod responded with an RBI single, Giambi followed with a two-run single (his third hit of the night already; the second an opposite-field single that defeated the now-standard shift against him). After a Sheffield single — his second hit of the night, following a sharp double that gave hints that his bat speed is on its way back — Chen was toast.

The Yanks continued dishing out Cream of Whoop Ass, with Cano adding a two-run homer in the seventh, and by the end of the game — we stuck around, having a blast watching the scoreboard (Jon Weisman has a nice summary of that angle, which included four games relevant to the NL playoff picture and a Dodger victory), playing peek-a-boo with a 14-month old baby girl in the row in front of us, and chatting with blogger Benjamin Kabak — every single position player had departed for a sub. Andy Cannizaro, Kevin Thompson, Sal Fasano (whom I couldn’t stop yelling at; the pear-shaped backup catcher totally entertains me with his junk-in-the-trunk waddle), Andy Phillips, Melky Cabrera — come on down! Final score: 16-5.

For all of this, Wang wasn’t too sharp, slogging through six innings and giving up 10 hits (eight singles and two doubles) and four runs, though he did strike out four. Sitting on the bench for extended periods of time might have had something to do with it; by the fourth the Yanks had already scored 13 runs. But still, the question remained as to whether Wang will ever convert that mid-90s speed into a higher strikeout rate, generally held to be the predictor of pitcher longevity. I’m skeptical myself; the sinker is his bread-and-butter pitch, and it’s not one designed to miss bats, it’s designed to generate ground balls. He’s got a four-seamed fastball and a splitter, but he doesn’t rely on those to deceive batters nearly as much. It will be fascinating to see how he develops, and whether he can be The Man in the playoffs. Torre officially announced that he’s starting the Division Series opener, so we’ll soon find out.

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