|A look at breakthrough campaign of diabetic Red Sox prospect Chih-Hsieh Chiang||07.11.11 at 12:56 pm ET|
PHOENIX – It has been a first half that has witnessed the rebirth of a career and the birth of a nickname.
“Call him Video Game Chiang,” Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks said of Portland teammate Chih-Hsieh Chiang at the All-Star Futures Game, where both players represented the Sox. “He hits the ball with video game pop. He hits the ball harder than anyone I’ve seen. He squares balls up. If he squares a ball up, and a guy is throwing hard, he’ll hit a ball 500 feet, no problem.”
“He’s always had that pop but he’s more consistent with it now. He hits line drives, I flinch because I think they’re going to kill somebody. … This guy hits the ball so hard, and it’s to all fields. He hit a ball, actually it was in spring training, he hit a ball to left-center, a lot of righties couldn’t pull it that far. It’s just unreal how hard he hits the ball.”
Mention of the title prompts laughter from Chiang, in part because Middlebrooks is not being entirely forthcoming with the explanation. Chiang is appreciative that his teammate made such generous mention of his offensive skills, but he suggests that his teammates began referring to him by that moniker for a reason other than the video game numbers he’s produced in Portland.
“I play video games in the clubhouse before games. It’s part of the routine,” Chiang said through interpreter and trainer Mickey Jiang. “Warm up, loosen up by playing video games, back to the hitting routine. They were just joking [with the nickname] but that’s how I calm down, get loose for the game.”
Yet that routine is far less important than another element of Chiang’s day-to-day life in Double-A that has helped him to enjoy a breakout campaign in 2011. The 23-year-old native of Taiwan is a Type 1 diabetic, a condition that he says was discovered after the Sox signed him out of Taiwan for $375,000 in 2006.
For much of his pro career in the United States, Chiang has struggled with managing his diabetes. The challenges of finding the achieving a proper nutritional program were complex for several reasons.
First, there was the matter of his adaptation from a carbohydrate-rich diet of his native Taiwan to the foods of the US. Secondly, there was the reality of what’s available to minor leaguers, who typically are subjected to late-night fast food stops as their primary source of sustenance.
“Every player we have in the system struggles with nutrition issues. These guys, their options are choosing between McDonald’s and Arby’s every night. You go in there and try not to order a No. 1, supersize,” said Red Sox vice president of player development and amateur scouting Mike Hazen. “We try to educate them the best we can. It’s not easy for these kids.”
But the issue went beyond just available foods for Chiang. Until this year, he seemed at times to struggle with the dedication needed to properly regulate his blood sugar.
“It was hard, especially if you’re a professional athlete in the first couple of years,” acknowledged Chiang. “I needed to make an adjustment.”
Chiang showed a desire to increase the vigilance with which he maintains his condition. The Sox were happy to help.
“This year we got him with a Chinese-speaking nutritionist at MGH. We’ve seen his energy level and his play increase a ton. He’s changed his diet,” said Hazen. “He’s definitely been more focused on it this season. It’s paid off on the field.”
Throughout the organization, team officials have raved about Chiang’s newfound commitment to putting himself in the best position to be healthy and to succeed. Chiang himself sees the difference.
“Our trainers and coaching staff helped me a lot. I feel like I’m a normal person and it works,” he noted. “When I have a good day, it has a good influence on my hitting stats.”
Indeed, the Sox have researched the effect of Chiang’s blood sugar levels on his performance thus far this year. The results have been fascinating, albeit too limited to yield any decided conclusions.
“We did a little bit of research. When his blood sugar level is within 10 of a certain level, he swings the bat well. On other days, when he’s not, it didn’t happen that way,” said Jiang, Chiang’s translator and a member of the Sea Dogs coaching staff. “The sample size isn’t huge, but it’s interesting research.”
There is little questions that Chiang has done a better job of managing his health this year than even before, something that makes his huge numbers this year in Portland all the more intriguing.
He is hitting .323 (5th in the Double-A Eastern League) with a .378 OBP, and he is leading the league in both slugging percentage (.630) and OPS (1.008). He has 14 homers and a staggering 47 extra-base hits in 71 games at the conclusion of the first half of the season for the Sea Dogs, exceeding his homer total and matching his extra-base hit total from 121 games in Portland a year ago.
In the process, he has turned heads. Chiang was a highly regarded prospect whom the Sox signed out of Taiwan for $375,000 in 2006. He always had good hand-eye coordination that allowed him to hit the ball. Yet he would be overly aggressive at times, resulting in inconsistency with regards to his ability to drive the ball.
This year, he has been more consistent in identifying pitches he can drive and crushing opposing pitchers’ mistakes. While some of his improvement is no doubt health-related, no small degree of credit also goes to the strides he’s made in understanding his swing and offensive approach as a 23-year-old in Double-A.
“This guy is impacting the ball. The consistency of the power has stood out more than anything else,” said Hazen. “I don’t think [his health has been] the biggest difference. I think his approach offensively and the consistency of impact and power has been the big difference. [And] taking better care of himself nutritionally and off the field, yes, that’s paid positive dividends. No doubt about it.”
For his part, Chiang is simply enjoying success unlike any that he’s encountered prior to this year. The fact that he was at the Futures Game on Sunday – where he went 0-for-3 with a walk while smoking a grounder to short against one of the game’s standouts, Matt Moore – reinforced how far he has come in 2011.
“I appreciate that I have this opportunity, and that I’m being noticed, getting exposed. It’s great to be known, and I’m happy to be in this game,” Chiang said. “I’m surprised. I’ve been happy that I can put my strength into a game, put up those good numbers. the numbers are a result of keeping a routine and an approach to figure it out, even though it took a little bit longer. I want to keep working on it and keep it going to make it to the big leagues.”
There was a time when it seemed fair to wonder whether such a goal was realistic. But in a 2011 season in which Chiang has been able to remain healthy while delivering outrageous production, such ambitions no longer seem far-fetched.
He was not widely viewed as a prospect entering the season. But after three months of putting up video-game numbers in Portland, that is no longer the case.
“We always felt this guy had the potential to play in the big leagues. [Red Sox VP of Player Personnel and International Scouting Craig Shipley] has been pounding the table on this guy’s bat from day one,” said Hazen. “It’s starting to show up now on a very consistent basis.”
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