It was on this very same field last October, Cleveland’s Progressive Field, when the sinker wasn’t sinking, and Chien Ming Wang was helpless as the Yankees endured another early exit from the playoffs. In just 5 2/3 innings of work, he allowed 12 runs and set off a cascade of arguments into whether Wang was truly an ace, or merely the beneficiary of good timing, run support and defense.
But on Sunday, Wang proved that he was every bit the ace the Yankees needed him to be, throwing seven brilliant innings as the Yankees blanked the Indians, 1-0. With the win, Wang improved to 5-0, joining Arizona’s Brandon Webb as baseball’s only five-game winners.
Wang topped Indian ace C.C. Sabathia, who was just as effective, in a billing of two aces with Cy Young aspirations. Sabathia (1-4) was a hard luck loser, giving up just one run (a home run to Melky Cabrera) all afternoon.
But the game belonged to Wang, who was only in trouble in the third, when he gave up a double to Jason Michaels to open the inning. After Michaels moved to third on a passed ball with two out, Wang induced a Travis Hafner ground out to escape trouble. The Indians would only be able to muster two more hits after that.
Perhaps more impressive was the way Wang dominated the Indians’ lineup. Instead of pounding the Cleveland batters with his sinker, Wang incorporated more of his sliders and splitters, striking out a season-high nine batters, one short of a career high.
For one day, Wang calmed his critics.
In his four years in New York, Wang’s main criticism has been that he pitches to contact, and lacks a true out-pitch.
The observations are more than fair.
Although Wang had won 19 games the past two seasons (more than any pitcher in baseball over that time period), Wang consistently ranks among the worst pitchers in strikeout rates.
In part, that is because Wang’s sinker invites contact. The pitch, thrown at 90-95 mph resembles a fastball, sailing through the heart of the zone, begging to be smashed. The only problem for hitters is, right before it reaches the plate, the pitch darts down 8-to-9 inches, leaving hitters to swing over the top, often inducing ground balls. Former Yankees Manager Joe Torre described facing Wang as attempting to hit a bowling ball.
While the sinker has been Wang’s bread and butter, it has simultaneously been the greatest source of his criticism. Wang’s desire to pitch to contact leaves him lacking in strikeouts.
In 2006, when Wang finished second in the AL in Cy Young voting, he averaged a major-league-low 3.14 strikeouts per nine innings. Last year posted the fifth-lowest strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (4.70). Combine that with the 19.06 ERA Wang had last postseason, and the dots were connected.
That has led to Wang shifting his focus in the offseason to protect his vaunted sinker. Last year, Wang threw his sinker 90 percent of the time. This year, he has thrown his slider 15 percent of the time. On Sunday, Wang has used his slider to right-hand hitters while showing his changeup and splitter to lefties. The slider, in particular, helped Wang with his strikeouts.
The Yankees sorely need Wang to be this consistent all season. Although rookies Phil Hughes (0-3, 7.85 ERA) and Ian Kennedy (0-2, 8.53) ooze talent, they have struggled early on. Veterans Mike Mussina (2-3, 4.94) and Andy Pettitte (3-2, 3.23) have been solid, but both – especially Pettitte – are injury risks at this stage in their careers.
On Sunday, Wang was every bit the consistent pitcher the Yankees needed him to be. The baseballs were coming off bats like bowling balls, and Wang’s performance set into motion what should be a very predictable formula should the Yankees want to get to October again: Wang for seven innings. Joba Chamberlain in the 8th. Mariano Rivera to close out the 9th.
That kind of predictability is just fine for the Yankees.