Chien-Ming Wang had a successful outing against Atlanta yesterday (yet we still lost), and after the game, Joe Girardi made an interesting comment regarding Wang’s pitching repertoire — specifically citing his changeup’s ability to bolster his approach against left-handed hitters.
From Bryan Hoch (MLB):
Wang tinkered with his slider and his changeup on Saturday, coming back with a diving offspeed pitch to strike out Anderson swinging in the third inning. That came after pitching coach Dave Eiland pulled Wang aside in a mound conference, telling him that he was not finishing his pitches.
“I thought his slider made a lot of progress last year, and I thought his change did as well,” Girardi said. “His slider in Spring Training has had more depth than I’ve seen it in years past, which is good. It’s going the opposite direction of a sinker and having some bite to it.
“The three pitches are important because you’re going to face some teams that try to put a lot of lefties in, and that changeup can help him a lot.”
I’ve never really noticed it before, but Chien-Ming Wang does seem to have a problem with lefties. He walks them more, strikes them out less, and, when facing him, they generally get on base at a higher clip when compared to right-handed hitters. In fact, his career line against righties is .257/.308/.337 and his career line against lefties is .274/.336/.396. Clearly, there is a significant disparity between those numbers. Now, I assume that Wang has an easier time with righties because, as a RHP, his sinker can move in on righties, ultimately inducing more ground balls, whereas with lefties, it’s harder because the sinker can drift over the plate. Brandon Webb, another sinker specialist, has had similar problems with lefties throughout the course of his career.
Based on what Joe Girardi has said in the above passage, he’s noting the importance of the changeup when facing left-handed hitters. The change would have similar movement to the sinker, however, it would obviously be a slower pitch. Essentially, this would prevent lefties from simply sitting on the sinker and waiting for the one that they can handle. While I agree with Girardi that the changeup is a helpful tool, I wonder if it has been as effective against lefties as he is indicating (or if it will be as effective as he is indicating).
First, in 2005, Wang pitched 116.1 innings, and held lefties to a .258/.319/.399 line. It’s not bad by any means, but he was better against righties (.254/.308/.342). That year, according to FanGraphs, 7.5% of Wang’s pitches were changeups. In ’06, Wang pitched 218 innings, and held lefties to a .275/.321/.384 line. That year, of Wang’s pitches, 4.5% were changeups. This was a fairly significant decrease when compared to the year prior (-3.00). Of course, the primary issue was that in 2005, lefties got to Wang, even though he was throwing a lot of changes. However, in 2006, with less changeups, Wang held left-handed hitters to a better line (77 OPS+ vs. 95 OPS+). This was occuring despite the changeup — in fact, one could argue that a lesser use of the change helped Wang in 2006.
Obviously, there’s more to it than that.
In 2006, the biggest difference when compared to 2005 was Wang’s use of his split-finger fastball. In 2005, 1.6% of his Wang’s pitches were SF FB’s. However, in 2006, 5.3% of his pitches were splitters. So, while Wang pulled back his use of the changeup in 2006, he also upped his use of the split-finger pitch. This is important, especially since Wang’s splitter was heralded as his best pitch against lefties only a few years ago (2005). The SP FB, as I have introduced it, is particularly important from this point on. I believe that by incorporating both his change and his SF, Wang was able to neutralize lefties in a way that he had not realized beforehand (compared to 2005).
To prove my point further, let’s look at 2007. In ’07, Wang threw 199.1 innings and walked away with .286/.344/.419 line against lefties. This was, by far, his worst completed line against left-handed hitters. What was the difference, though, when compared to his 2006 year which featured a very strong line against the opposition (77 OPS+)? Well, Wang died out in 2007 (95 OPS+) and he also threw a lot of changeups that year. 6.2% of Wang’s pitches were changeups in 2007 while only 1.2% of his pitches were split-finger fastballs. I think that this says a lot about Wang’s ability to remain successful. He threw the fewest amount of SF FB’s in 2007 and his line against lefties was abysmal, in comparison. That’s indicative of his current pitching style — basically, he’ll need to go to that splitter a lot more.
In 2008, despite limited time, Wang threw a nice mixture of both changeups (3.5%) and split-finger fastballs (2.5%), allowing him to keep lefties at an arm’s length. The .261/.347/.364 line he compiled was much more acceptable than his 2007 (85 OPS+ vs. 95 OPS+). What’s intriguing is that, of all the instances outlined here, CMW was better against lefties in 2006 and 2008. In those years, Wang employed his changeup and his split-finger in tandem, however, in his rougher years (against lefties), the change was used the most while the splitter was put on the back burner. For that reason, I wonder if Joe Girardi is tackling the issue as well as he could be. YES, Chien-Ming Wang is better served by knowing multiple pitches and having them at his disposal, however, he must incorporate that splitter, too.
It’s not all about the changeup, right?
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