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International man of mystery

Wang's unique style draws share of critics, doubters

Posted: Tuesday October 3, 2006 12:19PM; Updated: Tuesday October 3, 2006 2:52PM
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Chien-Ming Wang already has built a reputation as a cool customer in the Bronx.
Chien-Ming Wang already has built a reputation as a cool customer in the Bronx.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
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The $200 million Bronx Bombers won more games than any other team in the American League this year despite key injuries to Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano. And yet here we are again, the beginning of October, with the Yankees the favorites to win it all. But while their starting-pitching staff boasts a first-ballot Hall of Famer in Randy Johnson ($15.6 million) and a borderline candidate in Mike Mussina ($19 million), the Game 1 starter will be Chien-Ming Wang, a second-year sinkerballer who earned a paltry $353,175 in his second major league season.

There is some debate as to whether Wang's success has been a fluke. Many statistical analysts point to Wang's curiously low strikeout rate and can't fathom his success as being anything less than an aberration.

"This may just be an early peak year," says Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. "It's highly unlikely that he can do better than this without upping his strikeout rate or getting extremely lucky on balls in play, but a 4.25 ERA guy who provides innings won't have trouble making his mortgage payments."

On the other hand, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada told Sports Illustrated this spring that Wang had the best stuff of any pitcher in the starting rotation. "I've seen plenty of young pitchers come and go. That kid is special. He's here to stay."

Wang has an easy, fluid motion and a deliberate style on the mound. He works quickly and when he's on his game is extremely economical. Wang rarely gets ruffled emotionally even when he's getting hit hard. The only time he's ever gotten visibly angry in pinstripes came earlier this summer when Wang served up a gopher ball to Ryan Zimmerman to lose a game to the Nationals in the bottom of the ninth, his only mistake in an otherwise brilliant outing. Aside from that one moment, the 6-foot-4 Wang is almost serene on the mound, though he's clearly a driven competitor. "I've never seen a pitcher who is so calm," Yankees advisor Gene Michael told The New York Times this summer. "He's almost sleepy out there."

Wang's success isn't entirely shocking. The Yankees characteristically outbid six teams -- the Red Sox, Orioles, Mariners, Braves, Diamondbacks and Rockies -- for his services in 2000, shelling out a reported $2 million bonus. Using an interpreter, Wang told Baseball America, "The chance to compete in U.S. baseball is my greatest dream, particularly by joining the Yankees, who have won 25 World Series titles.... I am so excited I can't sleep."

It wasn't long before Wang established himself as the most accomplished player ever to come out of Taiwan, where he's become a national hero. Though derailed by injuries in 2001 and part of '03, Wang had developed into the organization's best pitcher at Triple A Columbus by the end of the '04 season on the strength of a newly acquired sinker. Before that Wang threw a variety of pitches, as many as six, each with varying success but none with dominance. Columbus pitching coach Neil Allen taught him the hard sinker, and his catcher (current Yankees backup) Sal Fasano guided Wang with assurance, eventually calling for the pitch almost 90 percent of the time. Wang's sinker clocks in the low 90s and has tremendous movement.

"What the sinker does," explains baseball historian Glenn Stout, "is allow you to get away with an average fastball if you can keep the ball down. It gets hitters ready to swing, which also tends to mean they swing at all sorts of garbage they normally wouldn't if they were trying to gear up on your fastball. It's a little counterintuitive, in my experience."

One scout told the Times, "You can hit it on the screws, and if it's sinking, you've got a nice, hard ground ball. It takes a lot of ground balls to win."

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