After Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells left in free agency after the 2003 season, the New York Yankees struggled to fill out the starting rotation behind future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. 2004’s back foursome of Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, Jon Lieber, and José Contreras proved inconsistent, and while they swung big by acquiring Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, and Jaret Wright the following winter, it took a prospect call-up (Chien-Ming Wang), a midseason acquisition (Shawn Chacon) and an out-of-nowhere campaign (Aaron Small) to stabilize the rotation.
Wang put together a solid rookie campaign, posting a 8-5 record with a 4.07 ERA (105 ERA+) in 18 starts. That earned him a spot in the middle of the rotation the following year. What he would become, however, was much more than that.
2006 Stats: 34 games (33 starts), 218 innings, 19-6, 3.63 ERA (125 ERA+), 1.307 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, 3.8 fWAR,
Born on March 31, 1980, in Tainan, Taiwan, Chien-Ming Wang signed with the Yankees as an international amateur free agent in May 2000. After making his stateside debut with the Staten Island Yankees — with whom his No. 41 is retired — Wang steadily climbed the farm system, reaching the majors on April 30, 2005. He would throw seven innings, allowing just two runs as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays, 4-3.
After a solid rookie season, Wang began 2006 slotted in as the team’s No. 3 starter behind Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. Across April and May, he struggled with consistency amidst flashes of dominance, holding the Oakland A’s to just three hits in eight shutout innings on May 12, but getting blown up for seven runs by the Red Sox just two starts later. Overall, in his first 12 starts of the season, he posted 4.86 ERA, recording a respectable 4-1 record entirely due to the 2005 squad’s high-powered offense.
Then, on June 3rd, with Mariano Rivera unavailable, Joe Torre called on Wang to record two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning to notch his first — and only — career save in a 4-3 victory over the Blue Jays. From this point on, it seemed like a switch was flipped. Across his final 21 starts, he went 14-4 with a 3.01 ERA. Perhaps more importantly, he gave the Yankees length, pitching at least seven innings in 13 of those starts.
Although he didn’t figure things out early enough to be named an All-Star, by the end of the year, Wang had firmly etched himself as one of the league’s best pitchers. He finished the season leading the league in pitcher wins with 19, and while that’s an overrated stat, it was indicative of his ability to provide quality innings deep into games on a consistent basis. His 3.63 ERA doesn’t seem amazing today, but his 125 ERA+ indicates that he was 25 percent better than league average (for a modern comparison, that’s slightly better than Luis Severino in 2022, whose 3.18 ERA gave him a 123 ERA+).
Named the Yankees’ Game 1 starter in the ALDS, Wang led the Yankees to victory in Game 1 against the Tigers, allowing just three runs on eight hits in 6.1 innings. That’s all he would be able to do, however, as the Yankees lost the next three days. In a decision that I have disagreed with since I was 10 years old, he was sent back to New York for a potential Game 5, unavailable to come in relief as Jaret Wright and Cory Lidle combined to surrender seven runs in four innings to end the Yankees’ season.
Still, as disappointing as the end of 2006 had been, it appeared the Yankees had a new ace on their hands. While, in hindsight, the fact that he finished as the runner-up for the AL Cy Young may not have been the most warranted — his 3.8 fWAR ranked 13th among American League starters — it nonetheless reveals just how high everybody was on Wang. His 2007 repeat performance, although not quite on the same level, nonetheless reinforced the view that he would be a top-of-the-rotation starter for years to come, as did his 2008 performance...
Until, that is, Wang stepped awkwardly on home plate on the road in Houston, ending his season prematurely. He never quite recovered, and leg and shoulder injuries — possibly the result of this injury — turned his once-promising career into one of the biggest “What ifs” of our lifetimes. But for that brief time, Chien-Ming Wang gave the Yankees something that they did not see again for a decade: a premier starter that was homegrown.