Having watched the first two uneven starts of Chien-Ming Wang’s comeback, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty has gleaned two prevailing opinions: Wang can still be an effective starting pitcher, but he has to change the way he pitches by reverting to his old approach.
As Wang became one of the best pitchers in the American League in his best years with the Yankees, he relied heavily on a bowling ball sinker. He was, Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams said, “a one-pitch pitcher.” When Wang was on, he could throw his mid-90s sinker over and over, and hitters were almost helpless to do anything but hit groundballs.
With his arm still regaining strength as he returns from a torn capsule in his right shoulder and the massive surgery it led to, Wang has tried to compensate by diversifying his repertoire, throwing more sliders and changeups. McCatty would like to Wang, starting with his start Monday in Chicago, use the same approach as he did with the Yankees, even if his sinker is not the same deadly pitch.
“From my watching him, he’s a sinker guy,” McCatty said. “That’s what he does. When you start trying to expand on that, that’s when you get in trouble. When you get beat, you always want to get back with your best pitch. I’m not trying to second-guess him, but there are certain situations, when it comes down to that time, getting out of this inning, how do I want to get out of it? He’s got to get back to what he was comfortable doing.”
In his last start against the Braves, when Wang allowed six runs in five, his worst moments came when he threw his slider. Dan Uggla put the game out of reach when he crushed a home run on a slider that spun, but did not break and remained up in the zone.
“The last thing that will probably come for him will be getting a good feel for the breaking ball,” McCatty said. “But, he’s not a breaking ball pitcher. When you get in tough situations, to rely on your breaking ball when you’re a sinkerball guy, sometimes that’s not the best way to go.”
With the Yankees from 2006 to 2009, according to data compiled by FanGraphs.com, Wang threw his sinker about 77 percent of the time and mixed in his slider on about 15 percent of his pitchers. In his first two starts with the Nationals, Wang has thrown 63.3 percent sinkers and 21.7 percent sliders.
“Sometimes,” McCatty said, “you’re so happy that you’re back that you try to reinvent yourself.”
And Wang may not have to. His sinker in his two Nationals starts has averaged 91.1 miles per hour, which is only two miles per hour less than he averaged with the pitch in 2006, his best season and the best velocity he had over a full year. Wang’s slider is not what it once was, but McCatty believes it doesn’t have to be.
“I have seen a pitch, the sinker, that has the capability to be successful,” McCatty said. “When you compare it to winning 19 games, throwing it 96, he’s a different guy right now. But what I see, what he’s doing with his sinker, it’s a very effective pitch. Time will tell how he’s going to be, but he showed signs to me that as long as he keeps it down, he’s going to get groundball outs.”