When Chien-Ming Wang took the mound for the Yankees in Houston, on June 15, 2008, he was a bona fide ace in pinstripes. After a strong rookie season in 2005, when he pitched to a 105 ERA+ and averaged well over six innings per appearance (116.1 IP over 18 games, with 17 games started), Wang was a workhorse for New York.
In his sophomore season of 2006, he finished second in American League Cy Young Award voting to Johan Santana. Between that year and the next, he won a combined 38 games while throwing 417.1 innings and leading the AL both seasons in homers allowed per nine innings (0.5 and 0.4 HR/9, respectively). The secret to his success? A devastating sinker that none other than Andrew Eugene Pettitte had gushing praise for, calling it “an ultimate weapon, like Johan Santana and his changeup ... It’s the best sinker I’ve ever seen.”
2008 started much the same, with CMW winning six of his first seven starts, including a two-hit gem at Fenway Park on April 11th against the defending champion Red Sox. He came into his June start in Houston well on his way to another successful season. The baseball gods had other plans for the young right-hander whose star burned so brightly that he made PSA’s All-Supernova Team.
On the mound that day, it was clear sailing. Wang cruised through the Astros lineup. Through five innings, he had allowed a total of six hits — none for extra bases — and not a single walk. It was all good for five shutout frames on only 71 pitches.
But in the top of the sixth inning, everything changed. After Jorge Posada and Robinson Canó singled, Melky Cabrera flew out to left field, leaving them at first and second. It was a prime bunting situation for Wang, and he got it down. Unfortunately, Astros starter Roy Oswalt was able to field it and throw to third base to force Posada, allowing Wang to reach first.
The next batter, Johnny Damon, hit a grounder to shortstop. Instead of a double play that would have ended the inning, or even a force that would have retired Wang at second, an error allowed everyone to reach safely. In hindsight, the Yankees would probably have rather had Houston get that last out to take Wang off the bases.
Derek Jeter then did exactly what one would expect. An RBI single brought Canó to the plate, with Wang on his heels. Unfortunately, immediately after the Yankees’ ace scored, he doubled over in pain, pointing at his right foot, ultimately needing help to get off the field.
In the aftermath, Yankees co-owner Hank Steinbrenner made it clear how he felt about Wang’s injury. “Am I [mad] about it? Yes... I’ve got my pitchers running the bases, and one of them gets hurt. He’s going to be out. I don’t like that, and it’s about time they address it. That was a rule from the 1800s.”
In retrospect, 14 years later, the random nature of the circumstances that led to Wang’s injury jump out. What if Wang hadn’t been so efficient with his pitch count? Maybe if he’d thrown 85+ pitches instead of 71, the chances that he’d be removed for a pinch-hitter in that scoring situation are higher. What if his bunt had been just good enough that Oswalt had no play at third and had settled for getting the out at first base? What if Damon’s groundball to shortstop had resulted in either an inning-ending double play or at least a forceout of Wang at second? Any one of those things would have meant that Wang was off the basepaths when Jeter hit his RBI knock.
Alas, none of those things happened. Instead, CMW was at the mercy of circumstance and National League rules and, rounding third base, he severely injured his right foot. Wang missed the rest of the 2008 campaign with a Lisfranc injury, and when he returned to the Bronx in 2009, he pitched terribly and his mechanics were way off.
Wang underwent major shoulder surgery that ended his Yankees career, and by the time he resurfaced with the Nationals in 2011, he was a shadow of the formerly dominant ace he had been. Wang bounced around the majors, pitching for Washington, Toronto, and Kansas City. His last pitch came in 2016, and even returning for that after multiple seasons of minor league struggles was a comeback worthy of a documentary.
For a Yankees franchise that has struggled to develop its own starting pitching at times, losing Wang to injury was devastating. By bWAR, since Wang’s 2006 Cy Young runner-up campaign (6.0 bWAR), only CC Sabathia has put together a better full season in pinstripes (6.2 in 2009 and 6.4 in 2011). With Wang only 28 years old at the time, it’s a sad “what-if” thinking about what his Yankee tenure could have been.
In a post-script, while it took another 14 years, baseball has reached a point, with the advent of the universal designated hitter, wherein we’re highly unlikely to see a similar injury befall a starting pitcher. Arms and shoulders have proven fickle enough. At least now, pitchers no longer have to worry about random injury while running the bases, something that former Yankee Mike Mussina acknowledged was tricky and unpredictable.
In an alternate parallel universe wherein the National League adopted the DH much earlier, I like to think that Chien-Ming Wang spent several more seasons in pinstripes inducing worm-burners with his bowling-ball sinker.