Chien-Ming Wang once won 19 games and finished second in Cy Young balloting. That year was 2006, when George W. Bush was still in the White House, Kim Kardashian was a pretty anonymous figure, and Raul Mondesi was 11 years old. He won 19 games again the next season, but after 2007, he has a 5.67 ERA in 258 big league innings. Last year, he had an awful 5.88 ERA - in AAA. He was let go by the Braves mid-season and spent a few starts in the independent leagues before latching on with the Mariners' top affiliate.
When the Royals signed Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league deal , and invited the Taiwanese pitcher to camp, it seemed that at best, Wang would serve as organizational filler in Omaha. Wang will turn 36 in a few weeks, making it very unlikely he can somehow resurrect his career.
But then he started throwing. And he actually looks....good?
Chien-Ming Wang said his velo was 88-89 last year. Now 94-95 thanks to pitching guru Ron Wolforth. #Royals— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) March 15, 2016
According to Pitch f/x data at Brooks Baseball, Wang averaged 95.4 mph in his outing Monday against the White Sox, topping out at 96.7. Sure it is a small sample size, and spring training stats don't matter, but Wang has struck out five in six innings of work with just one run allowed. Even more importantly, Wang seems to pass the eye test. In the few games I have seen him work, he looks...effective. You can see for yourself in this video provided by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs.
Chien-Ming made his career as a groundball artist. At his peak, the sinkerballer was getting groundball rates around 60%. When he declined, it was his fastball that let him down. Wang suffered a shoulder injury in 2009, and his velocity dropped off pretty quickly after that. Sullivan details the decline:
By our numbers, Wang’s average fastball in 2006 was 93.1 miles per hour. Come 2013, it was down to 89.9. Wang says last year’s fastball was even slower. That’s what makes this newer news meaningful — we already know what Wang has been able to do in the majors with his sinker where he wants it.
So how did Wang get his fastball back?
He credits Ron Wolforth, who runs the Texas Baseball Ranch, and is credited with helping Scott Kazmir add velocity to go from the independent leagues back to the big leagues. As ESPN writer Tim Keown writes:
The 55-year-old man with the Quonset hut looks a little like Phil Simms and talks a little like Tony Robbins. Ron Wolforth is something of a general contractor, specializing in rebuilding broken-down pitchers through guidance, motivation and the occasional straight shot of tough love. He studies biomechanics yet despises absolutes, which results in a teaching approach that relies more on suggestion than dogma.
Wolforth is a former low-level college pitcher who runs the Texas Baseball Ranch, the closest thing baseball has to a cult.
Wolforth also has worked with Trevor Bauer, C.J. Wilson, and a number of recent draftees. His teachings focus on adjusting mechanics to make deliveries more efficient, reduce injury risk, and increase velocity. He synthesizes teachings from biomechanics and distills it to his pupils in easy-to-understand instruction. He also believes in data, tracking the progress of his pupils with things like a "warm-up audit", "velocity audit", and "mindset audit." According to this 2013 article in Men's Journal, Wolforth's approach is not dissimilar to the data-driven approach taken by sabermetricians.
He blames a pervasive lack of intellectual curiosity within baseball – citing the early reaction against sabermetrics (the use of statistics to analyze rosters), depicted in the movie 'Moneyball.'
"Baseball people look at doctors and think, 'They don't understand baseball,' " he says. "And doctors look at baseball people and think, 'They don't understand elevated distal humerus.' What makes us different is that we feel as comfortable talking to an orthopedic surgeon about a labrum tear as with a physical therapist about a lack of shoulder mobility or a pitching coach about lack of fastball command."
Are his tactics legit or is this all a bunch of hooey?
Wolforth admits he is still an outsider in professional baseball. Several teams declined to discuss their involvement with Wolforth in this 2015 ESPN the Magazine story, with Trevor Bauer's Cleveland Indians even issuing the statement that "our relationship with Ron's Baseball Ranch is something we value greatly and also something we really care not to advertise."
Some of Wolforth's techniques seem to focus on mental aspects of the game, which raise some skepticism.
As one Ranch dad puts it, "You listen to Wolforth and he could be a preacher or a used-car salesman." The dad says this admiringly: Fifty percent of success in pitching "is just thinking you can do it."
Still, the proof is in the pudding. Trevor Bauer hit triple digits on the radar gun after working with Wolforth since age 14. Scott Kazmir went from throwing 80 mph to hitting the 90s again. And now Chien-Ming Wang appears to have his velocity back in the 90s after nearly a decade. The Royals have had some success recently with low-cost minor league free agents, and if Ron Wolforth is the real deal, then Chien-Ming Wang could be another feather in Dayton Moore's cap.