OAKLAND — When Wei-Chung Wang walked into the Oakland Athletics’ clubhouse on Saturday, he was greeted by not just a clutch of familiar faces, but with a bear hug.
Starter Frankie Montas — who became friends with Wang and calls him “my guy” after spending an Arizona Fall League season with him back in 2014 — embraced his new teammate giddily.
Wang, 27, was the beneficiary of the A’s designating Fernando Rodney for assignment, giving the A’s a versatile left-handed arm 15 years younger and more easily adaptable to varying bullpen roles. Having not pitched in the Majors since 2017 and spending the 2018 season in Korea, Wang was happy to be surrounded by friends when he arrived in Oakland.
“It’s been about four or five years, and we were all pretty young at the time,” Wang said through his interpreter, A’s Pacific rim scout Adam Hislop. “I was happy that the first thing I saw when I arrived was those guys … I’ve been waiting for this opportunity.”
While hasn’t had sustained big league success — in parts of two seasons, he has an 11.09 ERA in 18 2/3 relief innings — but after spending a year as a starter in Korea, he showed promise this spring with the A’s, throwing 3 1/3 innings shutout innings and surrendering just one hit while striking out five and notching two saves in two opportunities. His audition was cut short by a leg strain, but he had shown plenty of promise, and he went 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA in 16 relief appearances this season for the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators, striking out 22 in 24 innings of work.
One of the reasons he’s been able to have such success has been his changeup to righthanders (he started tooling around with a cutter in 2017 that’s developed since then), which is why Montas was so excited to have him around.
When Wang first met Montas — when they both teamed with Chris Bassitt for Glendale in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 — the two were at very different points in their careers. The Dominican Montas was coming up in the Chicago White Sox system as a promising, hard-throwing prospect who had never played above Single-A in five professional seasons. The Taiwanese Wang — just a year older — had raced through the minors and made his big league debut the previous spring for the Milwaukee Brewers.
After a tumultous 14-game stint in the Majors as a reliever — where he would come to meet future A’s teammates Khris Davis, Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers — Wang was headed back down to become a starter, and despite the language barrier (Wang’s English is better than he lets on, and he can “understand the game”), the two became fast friends.
“Man, he has really, really good stuff, really good stuff,” Montas said. “We were all kids, and he’d already been to the big leagues. When I first saw him pitch, his changeup was amazing. I was impressed by his command, too.”
Long in pursuit of a better changeup — Montas said jokingly that he’s tried “thousands” of grips — he tried to learn Wang’s grip. It didn’t work, and he kept stumbling along until developing his splitter over the offseason — a pitch that has him fourth in ERA in the American League — but he never forgot how impressive Wang’s change of pace was.
“From when I first saw him pitch in fall league, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy really has the stuff,’” Montas said.
Wang returned to the Majors for eight games in 2017 after a stellar season in high-altitude Colorado Springs (6-2, 2.05 ERA in 57 innings) but only retired four batters and allowing opposing hitters to go 5-for-9 against him. In 2018, he headed to Korea to become a starter again and had a measure of success, going 7-10 with a 4.26 ERA in 141 2/3 innings — the second-most he’d pitched in his professional career. As he began to tool around with a cutter, he struck out 108 and walked just 40.
“I was kind of getting a good feel for a role of being in the bullpen,” Wang said through his interpreter. “Then, I went to Korea last year and I was a starter for the whole year, so it’s been kind of a difficult transition, but to come back to the bullpen, it’s something I feel comfortable now, a role that I like.”
Now, Wang is more comfortable throwing extended innings, something that Rodney was not used to, having been at one point in his career an All-Star closer, used to pitching one inning at the back end of games — something he did last year for the 97-win A’s. This season, Rodney was 0-2 with a9.42 ERA in 14 1/3 innings for an Oakland bullpen that leads the big leagues with 10 blown saves.
“Obviously, some performance comes into play,” Melvin said. “I will say he’s not used to pitching in a role like that. He’s used to getting regular work, and we weren’t giving that to him, for some obvious reasons, but at some point in time, you have a guy who’s basically a one-inning guy who’s used to working late in games, and he’s not getting consistent work, it makes sense to try something different.
“He’s still throwing upwards of 95 … It was a difficult spot for him, and put us in a little bit of a difficult spot, too. We wish him the best. My guess is that he’ll hook on somewhere and hopefully gets to pitch a little bit more. I think there’s still a little something left … We just wish him the best and told him we respect him.”
Jetisoning Rodney and adding Wang gives Oakland not only able to throw multiple innings, but a second left-hander who can give Ryan Buchter a day off upon occasion. Beyond that, Wang has shown an ability to pitch effectively to both righties (thanks to the change) and lefties. In his last full minor league season in the United States, Wang posted a 1.29 ERA against righties (.256 BAA) and a 3.27 ERA against lefties (.258 BAA).
“That gives us a little bit more distance in the bullpen than it was, up until yesterday,” Melvin said.