Meet the AL's Premier Sinkerballer
Meet the AL's Premier Sinkerballer
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
BOSTON -- When Chien-Ming Wang takes the mound at Fenway, he'll be deep enough in enemy territory to feel the moisture on his face -- which is precisely what happens to most opposing pitchers who find themselves 60 feet, 6 inches away from David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez
But there's not much about Wang that categorizes him as ordinary, not with a 95 mph sinker that's turned Wang into the American League's premier ground-ball pitcher, or with a personality that's either zombie-like or brilliantly serene. Wang is a smoker, too.
And when it comes to music, the Taiwanese right-hander says he's made the cultural leap. It's Snoop Dogg that Wang listens to, recently telling The Journal News (White Plains, N.Y.) he likes the rap star's "good songs."
Given the unusual profile, it's no wonder the Yankees say they're blissfully intrigued by Wang, who has an angry pitching profile -- hard sinker, blistering four-seam fastball -- but is as gentle as a monk in the clubhouse.
"Chien doesn't say much," is how Joe Torre put it. "He's no different than the first day we met him. But I wouldn't say he's oblivious to what's going on. That's not the way I would describe it. I'd say he's very calm."
Wang is only 26, but his maturity is rooted in part by two major shoulder injuries that cost him parts of the 2001 and 2003 seasons in the minor leagues. Wang knows how precious his gifts are, particularly that stunning two-seamer that separates him from the rest of the Yankees' rotation, if not the AL itself.
Jorge Posada flatly says Wang has the most charismatic stuff among the Bombers' pitchers. That's no small endorsement on a staff that boasts Mike Mussina's knuckle-curve, Randy Johnson's 90-something fastball and Mariano Rivera's legendary cutter.
But Wang can defeat hitters even when they know what's coming: His two-seamer bores down and in to right-handed hitters, making him a nightmare to anyone even thinking of elevating the ball.
"Trying to hit fly balls against Wang on a regular basis, you just can't do it, especially righties," Posada said. "A left-handed hitter can at least try to go the other way against him. But a righty has no answer. It's a devastating pitch."
The mystery of Wang's two-seamer is how late it breaks and how irresistible it looks to hitters who come to the plate vowing not to get tricked. For 55 feet, it looks like a four-seam fastball, straight enough to track. But then comes the sharp, downward break that reminds peers of Kevin Brown in his prime.
Slowly but surely, smarter hitters are giving up trying to drive the ball into the gaps against Wang. On his better days, it's wiser to think of ground ball singles as the way to defeat him. For every fly ball Wang allows, he forces 3.36 grounders, the best ratio in the league.
That would explain why Wang is unafraid to keep challenging hitters over and over. Posada estimates 85 percent of Wang's pitches are sinkers. In beating the Devil Rays on July 8, Wang tossed out his other weapons altogether and threw 100 percent sinkers.
Those numbers become even more impressive in light of Wang's relative unfamiliarity with the pitch. As recently as two years ago, he was relying on the curveball and four-seam fastball, until Triple-A pitching coach Neil Allen taught Wang how to crack the code on the two-seamer.
Sal Fasano, who caught Wang in Columbus that year and is once again a teammate in the Bronx, summed up the transformation: "He became a totally different pitcher in like a week. I remember one game after the All-Star break, we were playing Pawtucket, in that little bandbox of a stadium they have, and Chien just blew their hitters away. He was throwing some serious ched [velocity] right by them."
Here's one other bizarre curve of fate: The Yankees were ready to trade Wang after the 2004 season in their pursuit of Randy Johnson. The Bombers let the Diamondbacks know that anyone and everyone in the farm system was available to them. If they'd wanted Wang as part of a deal for the Big Unit, all the D-Backs had to do was ask.
They never did.
"I was hoping they wouldn't, but his name never came up," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "I guess people didn't think he was very good. Or else no one thought very much of the way we developed prospects. They must've figured if Wang was our best, how good could he be?"
Truth is, the Diamondbacks did scout Wang that summer, but he made no impression.
Bryan Lambe, who now scouts for the Mets, told The New York Times, "I'd like to say I never saw him, but I did, maybe for a game or at least a part of a game.
"He pitched well, but not like now. He didn't have that velocity or that kind of sink. Natural maturity took care of the velocity, but somebody fine-tuned him, because that sinker is as good as anybody's."
It goes without saying how much the Yankees are counting on Wang, not just today, but in September and October.
"This [race] is far from over," said Cashman, meaning the tension will be thick enough to rattle almost anyone.
That is, except Wang and his two trusted weapons:
That sinker. And that zero-anxiety demeanor.
Perfect accessories for a weekend at Fenway.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.