Full Name: Chien-Ming Wang
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: March 31, 1980 (Tainan City, Taiwan)
Yankee Years: 2005-09
Primary number: 40
Yankee statistics: 55-26, 4.16 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 109 G, 104 GS, 670.2 IP, 60.1% GB%, 310 K, 93 ERA-, 90 FIP-, 14.0 rWAR, 10.6 fWAR
One of the classic Yankee tragedies, Chien-Ming Wang’s final MLB appearance came on August 30, 2016, pitching in Royals blue against the team he made his name playing for. He threw two innings, actually got himself into trouble before inducing a flyout from Didi Gregorius, and if it weren’t for the fact Wang never pitched again, this outing would be rather unremarkable.
The fact that Wang was even back on the mound was bittersweet, as any Yankee fan knows the gnashing of teeth that came out of watching a onetime ace struggle to find health. He had been on the shelf for three full seasons before breaking camp with Kansas City, bouncing around the Atlantic League and MiLB latticework while trying to reconnect with that bowling ball sinker that made him such a beacon of homegrown hope in 2006.
Now that we know how this story ends, we need to go all the way back, more than 16 years before Wang walked off that mound for the final time. An international free agent signing in May 2000, the right-hander was just the third MLB player from Taiwan. He first rose to fame when he starred in the 1997 World Junior Championship and helped the Taiwanese team win the silver medal, and the Yankees were impressed enough with him to give him a $1.9 million bonus.
Shoulder surgery derailed Wang’s second professional season before it started, but he really began his march to the majors in 2002. He rolled over the competition in the New-York Penn League for the Staten Island Yankees with a 1.72 ERA in 78.1 innings, and skipped both full-season A-ball levels in ‘03 — the same year he made the AL Futures Game team. Although it was an aggressive assignment and Chien-Ming lagged at Double-A Trenton for a bit, he shined at the end of ‘04 with a 2.01 ERA in 40.1 frames at Triple-A Columbus.
Wang was fully on the Yankees’ radar at the beginning of ‘05. An injury to free agent addition Jaret Wright gave him a shot in The Show, and further ailments suffered by Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown ensured that he would get an extended look. His MLB debut came on April 30, 2005 against the Blue Jays.
That start alone should have given us an idea of what we’d get from CMW while he was healthy. Seven innings, two runs, zero strikeouts. That above mentioned bowling ball sinker induced few whiffs, and in fact in Wang’s five-year run with the Yankees only 10 starters in all of baseball struck out a lower percentage of batters than he did. Sharing a pitching rotation with arguably the greatest strikeout artist of all time, Randy Johnson, Wang was about as different a pitching aesthetic as you can present.
Despite those meager strikeout totals, in that same period of time only two pitchers — Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe — induced a larger GB/FB ratio than Chien-Ming, a winning formula against the powerful lineups of the AL East in the mid-2000s. While flashes of promise shone through his overall 2005 performance, an arm injury also foreshadowed what would inevitably become the downfall of Wang’s career. He did return from that injury and made his first playoff start in his rookie year, a 6.2 inning, one-earned-run hard-luck loss that was very emblematic of the problems with the mid-2000s Yankee teams anyway.
Leading the staff
The 2006 Yankees came into the season boasting one of the most impressive on-paper offenses in baseball, and a rotation with an apparent co-ace tandem: future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina and Wang, who after a solid rookie campaign and playoff debut suddenly had the weight of Yankee expectations on him.
And what a sophomore effort it was. Chien-Ming established himself as the top dog on the Yankee staff, throwing 218 innings with a 3.63 ERA and leading baseball with 19 wins. He was particularly the bane of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ season, beating them twice in July throwing 17.1 innings allowing just one run, including his best start of the year, a complete game shutout to close out the month — sure enough, an outing that ended with a weak ground ball to second.
That 2006 squad won 97 games, sailing to a division title and handing the ball to CMW for the first game of the American League Division Series against the Tigers. In that way that starting pitching can often work, Wang’s start was worse on paper than his work a year ago, but the Yankees won the opening contest — their only win in October that season. You wonder if Chien-Ming was starting to get the picture of this era of Yankee baseball; excellent regular seasons followed by postseason flameouts. For his part, Wang ended up second in Cy Young voting behind Johan Santana, the high-water mark of the new Yankee star’s career.
Those expectations just keep on cranking up though.
For the most part, Wang answered the call in 2007, winning another 19 games and effectively replicating his performance from a year before:
After beginning the season on the injured list, Wang didn’t quite get to 200 innings, the seeming standard for Cy Young consideration at the time. There was no complete game shutout this season, merely a stellar 8.2 innings against the Mets in June where he struck out a career-high 10 batters. He had two separate runs at no hitters, being perfect through 7.1 against the Mariners in May and seven no-hit innings in August at Fenway before Mike Lowell punched a single.
Yankee fans with long memories will know what a weird season 2007 was. Alex Rodriguez balled out on the way to AL MVP, falling two votes shy of a unanimous pick. The Yankees as a whole failed to capture the AL East title for the first time since 1997, settling for a Wild Card spot while ceding the top spot to Boston. The dynasty may have ended in 2004 with that disastrous ALCS loss, but 2007 was the season where we all kind of figured out that a refresh was needed.
For Wang, October 2007 was the beginning of the end. He started two games in the now-infamous ALDS against Cleveland, receiving a metaphorical kick in the face in both starts. Once again getting the ball to open a playoff series, CMW’s two-seamer stopped breaking, and the AL Central winners took a round of batting practice.
Eight earned runs. Twice as many walks as strikeouts. The hardest pitcher in the AL to hit a home run off of surrendered two in 4.2 innings, putting the Yankees behind the eight ball in the series. Facing elimination four days later at Yankee Stadium, Wang had the opportunity to redeem himself, at home this time.
And he didn’t get out of the second inning. Four Cleveland runners crossed the plate as Chien-Ming, on short rest, allowed five hits and a hit batter in just nine batters faced. It was a collapse we didn’t see coming from the ace of the staff, and as the book officially closed on that great ‘90s-2000s run, his failure in the postseason felt like the whole dynasty’s denouement.
Wang didn’t let the hangover of such a bad ALDS stick, starting 2008 as one of the best starters in baseball. He won six of his first seven starts, with a 3.00 ERA and 2.93 FIP, and for him, a stunning 6.40 strikeouts per nine innings. He took the ball in the final home opener for Old Yankee Stadium, throwing seven innings and allowing a pair of runs in his first win of the season. Ten days later, at Fenway Park, Wang spun a complete game two-hitter.
He fell off that pace slightly in May, but with a three-headed monster of CMW, Moose and Andy Pettitte, if nothing else the top of the Yankee rotation was a strength. Then came Houston.
Interleague play, pitchers hitting, and Wang was given the bunt sign. He got it down too, but a quick wheel to third meant the sacrifice didn’t work. Wang was at first base, and an error at shortstop moved him into scoring position. The Captain did captain things, as Derek Jeter’s single brought two in to score, but the damage to Wang’s foot was evident from the moment he crossed the plate.
Hank Steinbrenner’s comments immediately after the game foreshadowed how devastating the injury was, and how much it would impact the rest of the Yankees’ season. The Yankees actually won the game, 13-0, in one of those great tricks the baseball gods love to play on us. I think everyone who’s ever put on a Yankee cap, player, fan, or exec, would have traded a loss for Wang’s intact foot.
He didn’t pitch again that season. The Yankees were scrambling to stay relevant in the division, six games behind the Red Sox at the time CMW went down. They ended up eight full games back by the end of the year. While Wang ended up avoiding surgery for his Lisfranc injury, he spent the summer in a walking boot before rehab, and that June start in Houston was really the end of his career proper.
Avoiding surgery meant Chien-Ming was back and healthy for the start of the 2009 season, and suddenly was no longer the ace of the team. That legendary spending spree after missing the playoffs the year before meant CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett took up the top spots in the rotation, and for the first time in his career the expectations on Wang were lower than they were the previous season. The Yankees had retooled, he just needed to be a solid rotation piece.
He had a 34.50 ERA after three starts to open 2009. Rumors ran wild that his foot injury was now chronic, and Brian Cashman himself admitted the righty’s mechanics were off, with a release point five inches higher than 2008. Yanked from the rotation in May, Wang was sent to the team’s complex in Tampa to work out his mechanical issues, where a physical revealed chronic weakness in his hip muscles.
The Yankees attempted a rehab program, but CMW managed just one good outing for the rest of his Yankee career, which effectively ended on the Fourth of July that year:
Wang threw a grand total of 175 more innings, spaced out over four seasons, missing the entire 2010, 2014 and 2015 campaigns. He occasionally starred for Team Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic, but in the majors, he was just never right again.
Wang battled injury and continued mechanical inconsistences that multiple teams couldn’t solve. After a poor stint with the Nationals, there was a brief reunion with the Yankees’ organization in early 2013, but they weren’t impressed enough to promote him, so his career ultimately ended with forgettable teams in Toronto and Kansas City. It was enough of a feat to even pitch for the Royals in 2016, as he had been absent from the majors for three years and toiled to make it back (check out the documentary in “Reference” for more). Sadly, the last hurrah only meant so much and KC released him before the season ended.
The thing about meteors is, as bright as they burn and as exciting they are to see, they’re crashing. We never see the meteors that don’t burn up, that don’t light up the sky, that stay in space. Chien-Ming Wang was the Yankees’ own personal meteor. That the best we saw of him came at a relative down point in the team’s history, and he had burnt out by the time the Yankees went back to the Promised Land is the cherry on top of his irony sundae.
Staff rank: 95
Community rank: N/A
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: 94
Chen, Frank W., director. Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story. Passion River Films, 2018.
Feinsand, Mark and Bryan Hoch. Mission 27: A New Boss, A New Ballpark, and One Last Ring for the Yankees’ Core Four. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2019.