Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Question No. 3: Will Wang, Chacon, and Small Contribute?

Swiftly moving down the rotation, we’re now at the three through five slots, quite possibly the most underrated positions in baseball. Without adequate performances at the bottom half, a dominant upper half can be easily undermined. As such, Carl Pavano, Chein-Ming Wang, and Shawn Chacon will be under a fine microscope heading into the 2006 season. Since Pavano will be the most highly scrutinized (see: $40 million contract), he’ll have an entire column dedicated to him, and in this space will be replaced by the sixth man in the rotation, Aaron Small.

(Okay, I realize that Joe would likely go with J-Wright should an injury befall one of his starters. That doesn’t mean he’s the best man for the job, however.)

All three of these men inspire curiosity, since it was their improbable performances that carried the Yankees through the waning weeks and months of the season. However, the team can’t reasonably expect them to repeat those clutch performances over the totality of 2006, can they?

It’s easy to cry “fluke!” when the parties involved are a 25-year-old rookie, a guy who has a track record of getting tattooed, and 34-year-old who has had exactly zero success prior to 2005. But I think it is unreasonable to think that all three of these men will bomb in 2006. Surely, one of the three will thrive, potentially providing the Yankees with a viable No. 4 starter. Isn’t this explicitly defined in the Law of Averages?

Of the three, Small is held in the least regards, at least among fans. None of us had really heard of him before July, his first appearance for the Yanks, mainly because there was nothing to hear about. He made his Major League debut in 1994, and had pitched a total of 218 innings prior to 2005, finding little success. In fact, he had only started three Major League games in his career before July 2005, all during an abysmal 1996 season in Oakland where he walked more batters than he struck out and posted an 8.16 ERA. So while we will always remember Smally for his July-September run, it’s easy to discard him as a fluke.

Small is of the finesse brand of pitchers, meaning that his strikeout rate won’t be eye-popping. What scares most people is that despite this finesse style, he still walks too many guys. Even in 2005, his strikeouts to walks ratio was a meager 1.54, which was actually an improvement of his 1.20 ratio coming into the season. If it’s any saving grace, he only averaged 2.84 walks per nine innings in 2005, not a terrible mark, but still troubling when juxtaposed with his K/BB ratio.

One of the keys to Small’s success was his ability to keep the ball from landing in the bleachers. Prior to 2005, he had averaged about one home run per nine innings. During his miraculous run, he cut that number in half, which was aided by his increased propensity to induce the ground ball (.55 ratio in 2004, 1.11 ratio in 2005). He faced less batters per inning, posting a pre-average of 4.60 and a 2005 average of 4.15. And, for the first time in his Major League career, he allowed less hits (71) than innings pitched (76).

If Small can continue to force hitters to put the ball on the ground and reduce his walk totals, he could find a degree of success coming out of the bullpen and spot-starting in 2006. However, the team can’t really count on this, considering Small’s history. He displayed vast improvement in many aspects of his game, but his history is daunting. Maybe Mel Stottlemyer tinkered with his motion or grip and that led to his success, but it remains to be seen if that’s merely an ephemeral effect.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wang may be here to stay. The 25-year-old rookie from Taiwan had a stellar season, and may have saved the first half of the season for the Yanks. The reason we think he’ll succeed: 2.96 ground ball to fly ball ratio. The only problem with this is that he allowed 9 home runs on 85 fly balls. While the home runs per nine innings ratio isn’t bad (.70), he allowed a home run for every 9.4 fly balls, which just isn’t going to work out in the long term. Of course, he’s young, so despite this number and his strikeouts to walks ratio (1.47), there’s always room for improvement.

In fact, during his minor league tenure, Wang posted a 3.47 strikeouts to walks ratio. And while he doesn’t possess the propensity to miss bats (7.05 K/9 minor league average, 3.64 in 2005), this history of a solid ratio bodes well for his future.

The major cause for concern with Wang is the rotator cuff injury that seemingly came out of nowhere in July. His return to the majors in September and subsequent 4.36 ERA for the month may have some fans on the edges of their seats, but fret not. His peripherals were quite in tact upon his return. In fact, I think it’s table time (and everyone loves table time).


The most glaring improvement was his ground ball ratio, which makes the future look a bit optimistic. While his post-injury sample size may be a tad lacking, it is also notable that he struck out one more batter per nine, yet only had a slight increase in walks per nine (reflected in the inflated ratio). The future looks bright for Wang. I’m not the only one who can see him developing into a solid No. 3 starter, with a ceiling as a No. 2.

The final member of the trifecta is the most confusing: Shawn Chacon. Let’s get one thing straight before I dive into analysis. My brother and I had been pining for Chacon the minute we heard he was available. True, he hadn’t done squat since going 11-4 in the first half of 2003 (when he finished 0-4 due to injury), but there’s just something about curveball pitchers in Coors that always leaves me wondering. It probably has to do with the late Daryl Kile, a master of the curveball who sank his career by taking it from the Astrodome to Coors Field. It has me thinking that maybe, just maybe some of these Rockies pitchers stand a chance elsewhere.

Here’s the progression of Chacon. Never a standout minor league pitcher, Chacon was welcomed to Coors field in 2001 when he posted an ERA of 5.06 against an adjusted league average of 5.19. Not bad for a rookie, but his dismal 2002 (85 ERA+) had many wondering about his ability. 2003, however, was a different story, as he came out of the corner swinging, allowing just four earned runs in 34.2 April innings. The rest of his season was rather sporadic, as he saw some major fluctuation in his ERA. But the gems were gems, and he had half as many crappy starts (7, which I define as an equal or greater number of runs allowed than innings pitched) as quality starts (14). And in 11 of those quality starts, he lasted at least seven innings.

But the wear and tear took its toll, and Chacon spent half of August and all of September on the DL. He indirectly explained this in an interview last August with John Sterling, when he said that the biggest difference between Yankee Stadium and Coors field is the between start and even between pitch recovery time. Apparently he was having a hard time keeping rested in that Rocky Mountain air. Sure, it sounds like a cop-out excuse, but it makes sense in some ways.

In 2004, the Rockies had a genius idea: let’s make Chacon the closer so we won’t wear on him too much. This didn’t work out all that well, as he converted just 80 percent of his save opportunities (for comparison, Mo converted 93 percent and Brad Lidge converted 91 percent). What’s worse, he had as many walks as strikeouts (52), and allowed 1.71 (!!) home runs per nine innings. Yikes. No wonder he was on the scrap heap.

I don’t need to reiterate the story of Chacon’s success in New York. Not only did he pitch phenomenally, he did it with consistency. As with Small, his history has some crying fluke, but I truly believe that a change of environment is just what Chacon needs to catapult his career. Like Wang, I see his ceiling as a No. 2 starter, but for this year I’m happy with him as the No. 5 guy. And we all saw what a team can do when they have a solid No. 5 starter (see: 2005 White Sox and Jon Garland).

Perhaps the greatest factor in the success of this trio is new pitching coach Ron Guidry. He’ll have his work cut out for him, as he has three pitchers right in front of him who have shown flashes of brilliance. It’s Guidry’s job to harness that greatness and perpetrate it. Not exactly the simplest of tasks for a guy with no Major League coaching experience.

Fortunately, the outlook for these three guys looks better than the forecast for Randy and Moose. It won’t be easy winning the division without a dominant top of the rotation, but with these three at the bottom of the rotation and out of the bullpen, the Yanks can compensate a bit, hopefully angling for a July move to put them over the top.