Detroit — In his most recent start in Tigers summer camp, Shao-Ching Chiang had an inauspicious beginning, giving up a leadoff home run to Niko Goodrum.
A mistake like that could rattle a young, inexperienced pitcher.
He bounced back to strike out the next three hitters: Victor Reyes, Miguel Cabrera and Jonathan Schoop. In the next inning, he walked two batters and gave up another hit but no more runs.
That start just scratches the surface of the value that Chiang can have for the Tigers in an abbreviated 60-game season. Just like any season, they can use as many spry arms as they can get. In a 60-game sprint, having those arms available becomes even more of a premium.
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Chiang, 26, is from Taiwan and was a free-agent acquisition in the winter, after having spent his career in the minor leagues with Cleveland.
After joining the Tigers, Chiang wasn’t projected to be a big factor in the majors. But with a solid spring training in Florida and summer camp in Detroit, Chiang is vying for a role as a long reliever or perhaps even as a starter. With Daniel Norris' status still up in the air, Chiang could be in line to make his debut with the Tigers, seemingly out of nowhere.
What has opened eyes in spring training has been Chiang's improved velocity — up to 97 or 98 mph — on his fastball, which pairs well with his repertoire of breaking balls. The mix has been good enough to trick Cabrera, and it might get Chiang a spot on the 30-man main roster when the Tigers trim the squad in half in the coming week.
The fastball has been Chiang’s calling card of late, but he said there's nothing new about the velocity.
“Actually, in these couple of years, my velocity has been increasing year by year and last year, I pitched pretty much at the same velocity I've pitched in spring training (this year),” Chiang said through his translator, Fox Xiu. “So, yeah, this is my velo in these couple years.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire said he wasn't aware of the extra pop in Chiang's fastball through the scouting reports, but it's a pleasant surprise, especially when there's a potential opening in the rotation.
Chiang had been something of an unknown quantity before spring training, because he had back issues early on in Lakeland. He hadn’t thrown much and Gardenhire was surprised to see what Chiang had in his arsenal.
What role he takes still is being determined, but the initial indications are good.
"We like him. We like his arm and he has a nice breaking ball. He can pitch and he has a great arm," Gardenhire said Tuesday. "We’re just taking a look at him to see how he fits and where he fits as we go along. A good possibility could be in our bullpen with the whole package.
"We’ll get with (general manager Al Avila) as we get closer and all make a decision on how we want to go forward and how we want to use him."
After the pandemic hit and spring training closed, Chiang stayed in Lakeland to continue working out. The uncertainty of when workouts would resume left many players wondering, but Chiang just continued his routine, waiting for the opportunity to show that he could be an asset — wherever he was needed.
Chiang found a workout partner in Lakeland in Michael Fulmer, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery just as Chiang had a few years ago. The two didn’t talk much about the surgery or rehab process, but Chiang — having gone through it himself — saw that Fulmer was on the right track.
“Because of the pandemic, during the shutdown when we were in Lakeland, we tried to maintain the social distance,” Chiang said through his translator. “Fulmer was doing his rehab program. He had a pretty decent program to get him better.”
Chiang’s journey brought him to the United States after high school and he was ready to pursue his dream to play in the major leagues, rather than the pro leagues in Taiwan or Japan. He toiled in Cleveland's farm system and made it to Triple-A Columbus last year, notching a 9-9 record with a 5.15 ERA in 131 innings, with 26 appearances.
In November, Chiang became a free agent and then played for Chinese Taipei in the prestigious WBSC Premier 12 international baseball championship. That’s when he got a surprise offer from the Tigers, and he signed in December.
Control seemed to be the biggest issue to fix in his game, with 57 walks and 11 hit batters last year at Triple-A. Those are fixable issues, with the fastball and off-speed pitches as a viable upside to build on.
So far, it’s closer to becoming a reality, as Chiang awaits the final word on whether he’ll be in Toledo with the other young players or getting his big chance with the Tigers when the season begins on July 24 in Cincinnati.
“I like this team a lot,” Chiang said, “and in the next couple of days, I will keep working and make myself prepared, just waiting for the final 30-man roster to be announced.”
Even if he starts in Toledo with the other prospects, he could be useful as the season progresses, either because of injuries or because of a potential positive test for coronavirus.
Either way, it could be an auspicious beginning to his career in the majors.