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:
- Would Wang address one of Detwiler’s weaknesses, his inability to pitch deep into games?
- 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?
- 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