When the Orioles signed Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen about this time four years ago, no one had any idea that the franchise was about to emerge from the dark years. Chen was not even the most heralded signing out of Asia that same offseason, with the signing of Tsuyoshi Wada and the botched mess with amateur Seong-Min Kim from Korea getting much more attention. Yet it was Chen who was the one who pitched his way into our hearts, and the Orioles out of the darkness and into the win column.
Chen came to us from the Chunichi Dragons, by way of Taiwan, and while no one was ever mistaking him for a Cy Young candidate in his debut season, he performed far better than anyone would have ever guessed. Though Chen seemed to tire down the stretch in September and ended up with a pedestrian 4.02 ERA in that first MLB season, he was a key part of the Orioles rotation that snagged a wild card spot by virtue of being the only starter who lasted the entire season in that rotation.
Those were the days when Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter were all still thought to be starting pitchers. At the beginning of the 2012 season, Chen didn't see his first action until the O's fifth game. A #5 starter behind some of those others, it seemed. By the season's end - by the time the Orioles were in the ALDS - Chen earned himself the right to pitch in the second game of that series, and it was Chen who was the winning pitcher in that game, the first O's home playoff win in 15 years. He earned that win.
Some moments from the highlight reel of that game:
For me, it doesn't get much better than when he nails Derek Jeter for the looking strikeout. You can see the hallmarks of Jeterian chicanery in the few seconds he features in this video; the thrust-out posterior to "get out of the way" for a pitch that's out over the plate, the immediate incredulous turn to whine to the umpire, the announcer succinctly stating, "Jeter doesn't think so," but, Derek, as the great sage Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson said, it doesn't matter what you think!
You would even find Chen on a couple of Rookie of the Year ballots that year, literally just a couple, but enough that he finished in fourth place in the year that Mike Trout introduced himself to the baseball world. No shame in that.
Chen's success in Baltimore only grew as he gained more major league experience. He took a big leap forward, and not coincidentally, so did the Orioles, in the 2014 season. Chen shaved over half a run from his ERA the previous season, and sure, some of his improved 16-6 win-loss record was from the incredible offense that team had, but a lot was also Chen figuring out how to deploy his arsenal in this league. He was even better still in 2015, posting a 3.34 ERA. Too bad the rest of his rotation-mates could not continue that success.
Never the flashiest of Orioles on a team full of big personalities, Chen might have often gone overlooked by many. His place in Orioles history may not be as large as some others, but he undeniably has that place. MASN's Gary Thorne never quite managed to get Chen to give an interview in English on camera, leaving us to enjoy sporadic funny moments like the Jumbotron "Guess The Song" segment from this past season, when, presented with the disco classic Stayin' Alive - which many of his teammates failed to recognize, Chen simply stated, "Bee Gees."
About that franchise leaderboard, his place is higher than you might think. Leaving after his four good seasons, Chen sits in eighth in the whole history of the franchise for career O's winning percentage among starting pitchers. That .590 winning percentage - a 46-32 record - puts him ahead of franchise greats like Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan. You'll find him near the top for lowest walk rate (sixth) and best strikeout rate (second - ahead of even future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina). That's some good company.
It seems safe to say we'll never see another player quite like Chen again. We were lucky to get to watch him for as long as we did. Those of us who happened to be there the night they gave away Chen t-shirts (you might also remember it as Manny Machado's major league debut) will have to content ourselves with hanging on to that collector's item. He will be missed.
He'll even give a last gift to the franchise after he's done playing here, from a certain point of view. Thanks to the qualifying offer that his performance earned, the Orioles will get a draft pick for losing Chen. Maybe the Orioles will even be able to turn that pick from the loss of one good Oriole into a future good Oriole. Stranger things have happened.
Chen was signed. He played. He is Birdland.
With Chen's official departure, there are now just 13 O's remaining on the 40-man roster who played for the 2012 team. Of the 2014 division champions, 18 Orioles remain.