Changing of the Guard?

Last night, the Nationals continued their excellent start to their road trip, moving to 3-1 after taking down the Atlanta Braves 7-4.  Still, for the first of eighteen games against a Braves squad that is still only two games back, and with every team in the NL East within four games, you would hardly think the win would bring potentially big news.  But with starter Ross Detwiler struggling to throw strikes after being staked to a four-run lead in the top of the first, manager Davey Johnson pulled the plug after only 4 1/3 innings and 100 labored pitches.  And in came Chien-Ming Wang, who tossed three innings in relief for the victory, allowing three hits and one run on a Jason Heyward solo shot in the bottom of the eighth.  Naturally, after the game Davey was asked about whether he was considering swapping Detwiler for Wang.  He cryptically replied, “Yes and no.”

Hmmmm.  Not a surprising answer for a DC man, and I’m actually kind of glad he also said he didn’t want to make any sort of decision in the heat of the moment, because despite Detwiler’s recent struggles, I still think he is the better pitcher than Wang.  Now, being the better pitcher doesn’t mean he is the best option to take the ball every fifth day.  Ross has yet to go more than  6 1/3 innings in any of his 9 starts so far, which puts additional strain on a bumped and bruised bullpen.  And his May has been ugly:  5.74 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and just one win.  But I don’t think he is as bad as those numbers indicate (his May FIP is 3.69, which points to a lower ERA once his absurdly low strand percentage (59.1%) normalizes).  Then again, he isn’t the sub-2 ERA pitcher of April either.  He is somewhere in between, which his current 3.88 ERA correctly reflects.  The journey there though has just been of two extremes, which makes this moment so stark for a potential change.

Wang’s career ERA (4.15) and FIP (4.05) seem to point to a solid innings-eating pitcher whose success has been based on getting a lot of ground balls (59.4% career) which just also happened to translate to a bushel of wins with the high-scoring Yankees.  But wins are often not reflective of a pitcher’s underlying skills, and Wang’s skills don’t appear to be quite as good as Detwiler’s.  However, three key questions must be answered before I would finalize the Detwiler-Wang question:

  1. Would Wang address one of Detwiler’s weaknesses, his inability to pitch deep into games?
  2. Does Wang’s injury history and concerns about getting his shoulder properly warmed-up out of the bullpen dictate that he pitch as a starter?
  3. Do the Nationals need to feature Wang as a starter if they want to use him as a trade chip?

The answer to the second question is only known by National’s management, coaches, doctors, and Wang himself.  I’m going to speculate that if they really thought putting him in the bullpen could place him at greater risk of getting hurt, we would have never seen him last night.  Then again, teams across MLB over and over have shown a tremendous ineptness in keeping pitchers healthy, so take my speculation for what it is worth.  Similarly, I’m not plugged into front-office thinking across baseball, so it is hard to say what value Wang carries and whether two months of starting would be enough to land another piece for the Nats (catcher???).  My hunch (I’m throwing darts everywhere baby!) is that teams would need to see Wang start and prove that he is healthy before they would give up even a marginal player.  But the again, if the market for Wang isn’t going to yield you much in the way of talent that will improve your club, then I’m of the notion that you can never have enough starting pitching.

As for the first question, Wang hasn’t pitched seven or more innings since 2008, which appears to make largely moot any advantage Wang would have over Detwiler going deeper into games.  Granted, Wang has been injured for large stretches since 2008.  However, his bum shoulder and middling skills don’t scream out for an absolute need to make the swap.

And that’s what I can’t help but take away from looking at the potential change.  Detwiler is the better pitcher with better skills whose chief weakness would not be remedied by Wang.  Ross is not leaps and bounds better, but I think he is still deserving of holding down the 5th spot.  Now watch Davey announce the move later today. 🙂

Game ball(s):  Ian Desmond and Rick Ankiel, whose single and triple helped fuel the Nationals four-run first inning which was a breath of fresh air for a team that usually starts slow. 

Goat(s):  Detwiler.  I just spilled a lot of ink defending you so it pains me that you couldn’t do more last night to pitch aggressively. 

Bryce Harper is still only 19:  Consider this the column’s third game ball, as Ryan Zimmerman’s three-run double came at just the right time to pad the National’s dwindling lead.

Current Record:  27-18


  1. weezie

    I don’t think Wang will be traded unless they expect Strasburg to be pitching in September. At some point in the near future, I look for Detwiler to either move to the pen or be sent down until a spot opens up (for injury or Strasburg’s innings). They could still trade Lannan, whose stuff isn’t as good as either Detwiler or Wang’s. Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, Detwiler is a young guy with excellent stuff that will be in the organizations plans for the long haul, so there’s no reason for him to be down if he gets looked over in favor of Wang for the short term.

    I think Detwiler’s pitching is about as good as Zimmerman when he’s on and he probably would give better starts over the season than Jackson or Wang. But nobody is going to bench those salaries in favor of a young arm without a trade or an injury. I know he was struggling with command last night, but he still wasn’t getting pounded and I don’t think that will be the case when Wang struggles with command. The Nats have never given him a chance to go long innings even when he is pitching effectively, and I think Davey was wrong in pulling him out of the game for Wang in the 5th last night. Nobody could be sure if Wang was going to be effective in that situation and Ross was not getting hit hard. And as much as nobody likes to admit it, that was a big game to win last night and quite a risk in putting Wang in over someone like Stammen. I think Davey was itching to get Wang in that game and I would be shocked if Detwiler has more than one start left before he is pulled from the rotation.

  2. Matthew Tracy

    Couldn’t agree more that Davey was just waiting for the moment to make the call to Wang, which sort of makes me feel like I know how this story is going to play out. The giant X-factor is what the Nationals are really going to do come September with Strasburg. Limiting innings sounds good in March, but a heck of a lot less so in September in the middle of a playoff race. I can’t see them shutting him down in such a spot, which would make Wang expendable.

    The question is whether they have already decided what they are going to do with Strasburg in September (pitch him if they are in contention) and that is why they want to feature Wang for two months to see what they can get. If come late July the Nats have faded, well then you can probably still try to trade Wang and call up Lannan to eat up Strasburg’s September innings.

  3. weezie

    All true, but the reality is that they are going to wait until the very last minute to decide about Strasburg. They won’t likely know what they are going to do with him by the trading deadline. I think they want to start Wang because they are paying him and nurturing Detwiler. It’s obvious that Detwiler’s innings and pitch count are being watched closely. With Wang, they can send him out there and not worry about long term effects of a heavy workload and have insurance in case of an injury. Obviously, the situation can change with the W/L record, but I think everyone expects to be in the playoff race at the end of July and the prospect of trading Wang isn’t even on the radar yet. So, yeah, I think Wang will be the 5th starter soon, but I wouldn’t agree that the trade option is the reasoning.

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