Health In Check, Chiang Breaks Out For Red Sox
PHOENIX—It was a first half that had witnessed the rebirth of a career and the birth of a nickname.
"Call him Video Game Chiang," third baseman Will Middlebrooks said of Portland teammate Chih-Hsieh Chiang "He hits the ball with video game pop. He hits the ball harder than anyone I've seen.
"He's always had that pop, but he's more consistent with it now," Middlebrooks added. "When he hits line drives, I flinch because I think they're going to kill somebody."
Chiang was appreciative that his teammate made such generous mention of his offensive skills, but the outfielder suggested that his teammates began referring to him by that moniker for a reason other than the video-game numbers he's produced in Double-A in 2011.
"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 hobby is far less important than another element of Chiang's daily routine. The 23-year-old is a Type 1 diabetic, a condition that was discovered after the Red Sox signed him out of Taiwan for $375,000 in 2006. For much of his pro career in the U.S., Chiang struggled to manage the condition. The challenges of achieving proper nutrition were complex.
First, there was his adaptation from a carbohydrate-rich diet in his native country to the foods of the U.S. Second, there was the reality of minor league meals.
"Every player we have in the system struggles with nutrition issues," Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. "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. We try to educate them the best we can. It's not easy for these kids."
But the issue went beyond just available foods. 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," Chiang said. "I needed to make an adjustment."
Chiang showed a desire to increase the commitment to his health. The Sox were happy to oblige, introducing him to a nutritionist at Massachusetts General Hospital this offseason who spoke his native language. The results—in the form of increased energy level and improved performance—were eye-opening, both for the organization and the outfielder himself.
"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, Boston has researched the effect of Chiang's blood-sugar levels on his performance in 2011. The results have been fascinating, albeit limited.
"When his blood sugar level is within 10 of a certain level, he swings the bat well," said Jiang, Chiang's translator. "On other days, when he's not, it didn't happen that way. The sample size isn't huge, but it's interesting."
That, in turn, makes Chiang's huge season in Portland all the more intriguing in evaluating whether his breakout year is a fluke.
In the first half, Chiang batted .323/.378/.630 in 257 at-bats. He had 14 homers and 47 extra-base hits in 71 games, 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 hitter when he signed in 2006. In his first five pro seasons, however, his numbers were respectable but not particularly noteworthy, and an aggressive approach resulted in inconsistency.
This year, he has more consistently identified pitches to drive and crushed pitchers' mistakes. While some of his improvement is no doubt health-related, credit also goes to the strides he's made in understanding his swing and offensive approach.
"Taking better care of himself nutritionally and off the field, yes, that's paid positive dividends. No doubt about it," Hazen said. "(But) 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."
For his part, Chiang is simply enjoying success unlike any that he's encountered previously. His participation in the Futures Game reinforced how far he has come in 2011.
"I appreciate that I'm being noticed, getting exposed," 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. Chiang was not widely viewed as a noteworthy prospect entering the season. But after three months of putting up video-game numbers in Portland, that is no longer the case, and his ambitions no longer seem far-fetched.
"We always felt this guy had the potential to play in the big leagues. (Red Sox vice president of player personnel and international scouting) Craig Shipley has been pounding the table on this guy's bat from day one," Hazen said. "It's starting to show up now on a very consistent basis."