Late Life: How Chien-Ming Wang Made it Back To The MLB

It’s the perfect title for a Netflix documentary on the rise, fall and resurgence of ex-Yankee Ace, Chien Ming Wang. I am honored to be a part of it.

Here’s the trailer

Chien had been a 19-game winner for 2 consecutive seasons with the New York Yankees and was runner-up for the AL Cy Young. But a base running injury and subsequent arm trouble had sent him tumbling through the minor leagues and all the way to Indy ball.  By the time he toed the rubber in Kauffman Stadium on April 9th, 2016, he had been out of MLB for almost 3 years.
Everyone wondered how a guy with a broken foot, a torn hamstring, and a very difficult shoulder surgery could make it back to the big leagues. Observing the situation, it seemed highly unlikely, if not impossible tha he would ever make it back.  I mean, he had pain and difficulty raising his arm to even scratch his head, and the first time I put a radar gun on him, it read 82mph — not exactly big league stuff.
How did he do it?
The secret to Chein’s comeback is that there is no secret.
He got it “the old-fashioned way.”

He earned it.

On April 12th, 2015, Chien-Ming Wang’s agent, Alan Chang called me and relayed his performance history, his long list of injuries, and sent me some high-speed video from an outing from the previous season. According to Alan, Chien had shown flashes of brilliance the previous year but had struggled with consistency. From one outing to the next, Chien would lose velocity and his famous sinker would randomly disappear. He’d have one outing where things felt great and his stuff was electric, then he’d have 4-5 where the stuff just wasn’t there.

We set up an appointment for Chien to come in on November 17th.

Before our first meeting, I had organized a presentation to outline the plan we would implement to help Chien get back to the big leagues.

I opened by explaining that I believed the key to Chien’s future greatness would be found in achieving consistency, and that would require an aggressive and well-designed recovery program.

Next, I identified the variables that might contribute to poor recovery.

I pointed out that since I hadn’t been around him and I hadn’t conducted a physical evaluation, the only factor I could comment on was the possible biomechanical stressors I had seen on the video I had examined. I presented my video analysis findings and explained that we would still need to conduct a more thorough evaluation if he chose to train with us.

Chien’s devastating sinker was his biggest weapon when he was at his best, but it had randomly failed him when he was struggling. So I explained to him why his sinker is so good. I assured him we would be making all adjustments subconsciously, through guided discovery and that we would be checking his ball flight weekly to ensure his new movement patterns did not alter his “stuff”. Finally, I laid out the objectives of his training as I saw them.

An hour after the meeting concluded, Alan called and said, “Chien was very impressed with your approach and would like to work with you and your team.”

I gathered our team of instructors and shared the following

“In cases like this, we walk a fairly narrow road. If we are too timid or cautious, no change will be made. The body simply views this as ‘white noise’. If on the other hand, our changes disrupt natural sequencing and synch, we can really take him backward. We’ll kick the tires first. Make sure he can be pushed (low/no pain) and can handle the work in front of him. Then we want to pick 1 or 2 things that will have the greatest possible impact. Implement them via guided discovery and natural learning with audacity, clarity, and certainty. The less we get in the weeds, the better. When it comes to the minute details, it’s important for us to know, but many times it can cause unnecessary problems for the athlete. We want Chien moving naturally, not thinking and analyzing.”

We marked the calendar for the day he would report to spring training. As we counted back we had 12 weeks to get Chien to peak performance. Given his age and his recent performance history, we felt it would be important for Chien to be sitting around 90-93 mph to have a shot at making the Royals big league roster in the spring.

Chien would need an individualized plan, integrated across multiple disciplines, and ramped to ensure peak performance on opening day of spring training.

I’ll share all the details of Chien’s plan and the obstacles he faced along the way in part 2 of this 2 part series.

We earmarked the first 4 weeks for ability development – power building, mobility training, cleaning up his movement pattern and pushing velocity once per week. His throwing plan (6 days per week) included twice-weekly long toss, precision drill work, and one velo push day per week. Every aspect of his training plan during this phase — from warmup to throwing program, to weight training, scapular stability, training, yoga, and plyometrics would be coordinated across all disciplines and would be designed to build power. Recovery would involve physical modalities such as Marc Pro electrical stimulation, and manual therapy in our physical therapy clinic.

During the second phase (4 weeks in duration) we would shift to a 50-50 mix of ability and skill. Each week, one on of his long-toss sessions would be traded for bullpen session of graduated volume. His multidisciplinary workouts were adjusted accordingly to match the intent of the phase.
The final 4 weeks would be dedicated to refining his skill by completing 2 bullpens 60-75 pitch bullpen sessions per week, with recovery and drill work in between.

The plan was organized into a comprehensive document and posted in a 3 ring binder and included a spreadsheet with daily instructions across every component part. Chien kept a copy with him, and our staff used it to guide his daily training and to document his progress.

On his first velo push day his initial throw was 82 mph and after 15 max effort throws he topped out at 84 mph.
He seemed flustered. “84?” he asked. I could sense his concern. We were supposed to be increasing his velocity, but he appeared to be going backward.

I assured him that his body would respond if he would just stay the course and stick to the plan.
Then I prayed we were right.

Chien went home to Taiwan for 3 weeks in late December.
He took his notebook with him and executed his plan every day. We compiled a series of videos to remind him of the exercises and drills he should be using. He came back to The ARMory, and on Jan 14th he topped out at 87 mph.

One staff member voice concern that at this pace he wouldn’t be throwing hard enough by February to impress anyone. I offered, “If he’s 87 mph indoors with sneakers on a temporary mound, he’ll be right around 90-93 when the lights go on in a real game.”

A week later, on January 21st we checked his velo again.

He started the morning at 85 mph and after about 10 throws had made no progress. A minor leaguer and 2 college guys were training that day, so I had an idea. Maybe Chien needed the added adrenaline of competition to push him through his barriers. So I asked the 3 young men to join Chien in a wager. The loser of the velo-off would have to buy lunch.

Five throws later this happened.

Things were starting to look up.

But we still had work to do.

As we entered the final 3 weeks, I arranged for Chien to throw to live hitters during an intrasquad at Durant high school, where my eldest son is the pitching coach and my youngest son a senior catcher. On the first pitch of intrasquad, the Durant shortstop, Johnny Herman, who had a career home run total of zero, took Chien deep.

A rather inauspicious start to say the least…
Chien stood on the mound with his arms open and smiled as Johnny rounded the bases having achieved the dream of hitting a homer off of a big league pitcher.
“In spring training simulated game, no one ever swing at the first pitch.” Chien would later comment.

Two weeks before his report date we backed off on significantly on the intensity and volume of his workouts. During this time we focused on physical therapy modalities, manual therapy, and restorative functional movement. He left with high hopes and well wishes from everyone on our staff.

It wasn’t long before Chien became the talk of the town in Surprise, AZ with eye-popping velocities reaching 96.7 mph
With characteristic humility and class, Chien acknowledged his work at The ARMory in the off-season as the key to his new success.  The day he mentioned it to reporters, the entire country of Taiwan visited and crashed our website. We doubled the bandwidth and after his next outing, it crashed again.

Seems our guy Chien-Ming Wang is a kind of a big deal in his home country. He’s a bit embarrassed by the attention, but he loves his country too.

On on particularly rough day of training, Chien was resting on a ball bucket. I sat beside him and asked, “Chien, why are you doing this?” He looked perplexed, so I repeated the question while adding, “Why are you putting your body through all this? I looked you up on the internet. You’ve made over $50 million in your career. You could retire and return to Tawain and ride out the rest of your life. Why are you trying to make it back?”

Chien replied, “I love my country. I love the children of my country. I want them to know they can do anything they set their mind to do. I want them to see that if I can do it, they can do it too.”

Chien made the team out of spring training, pitched well throughout the season and inspired an entire nation. During the comeback, film maker, Frank Chen was there recording every minute for the documentary. As Frank put it, “This film was either going to be a sad story about the lost glory of a legend, or an inspirational example of power of the human spirit.”

We’re happy to report it was the latter.

Search the documentary section of your Netflix menu and find Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story

We think you’ll love it.

Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS CEO, Florida Baseball ARMory

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