Michael Wacha is taking Cardinal Nation by storm. Although much of the rest of the world is skeptical, St. Louis fans know enough about the game to know when they see something special, and Wacha is something special. Presumably, this Thursday will be his nineteenth major league start.
Let that sink in for just a minute.
The kid hasn’t pitched a score of games yet, and he’s already the second best pitcher on a team with a ton of pitching talent. Michael Wacha is fast becoming a St. Louis legend.
But legends aren’t born in a day, even when it might seem like they are. See, Wacha’s legend starts with who he had to replace. He was the compensatory draft pick for a man named Albert Pujols. After Pujols’ 11 insanely good seasons, Wacha had some big shoes to fill, and no one really expected him to. That said, Cardinal Nation was very excited about him, having heard great things.
Then it happened. Spring training of 2013. 5 games, 11.2 innings, 0 earned runs, 15 strike outs, 1 walk, 7 hits, and a proclamation: “that guy, right now, can pitch in the big leagues.”
Yadier Molina isn’t generally one for hyperbole, and with those stats, such a bold statement seemed nearly believable. Nearly. But could the 21-year-old who was in college just a year ago really be that good? On the other hand, how can you question the best catcher/pitching coach/scout on the team?
Turns out that Yadi was probably right (imagine that!). After 85 warm-up innings in AAA, Wacha came out and shut down the Kansas City Royals with a 2-hit, 7 inning performance. He had his ups and downs after that, but he reached September 19th with a nice 3.21 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 56 innings.
Then, in his final start of the regular season, Wacha took a no-hitter against the Washington Nationals into the ninth inning, and the hit he did finally give up with two outs in the ninth was a crappy little dribbler to short. To say the least, Wacha was frustrated.
He decided to take that frustration out on the Pittsburgh Pirates in a crucial NLDS Game 4 at PNC Park. As all of Pittsburgh chanted “WAAAAAAACHA” in an attempt to disorient and spook him, Michael Wacha merely grinned and carried another no-hitter into the eighth.
After out dueling soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw with a scoreless start in the NLCS (twice) and earning himself the Championship Series MVP, it’s fair to say that Wacha has also solidified his role as 2013 playoff hero.
In short, Wacha is a beast, and will continue to be one for years to come. Now here’s my evaluation of his strengths and weaknesses, along with a look at where he’ll be next year and where he’ll be five years from now.
The Strengths: Wacha has a lot of strengths, from his mid-90s fastball to his tight curve (when it’s working), but his most dangerous weapon is his phenomenal change. Initially, you might think that a change-up can’t really be that effective or make a really great pitcher. You’d be wrong. You can ask 2 time Cy Young winner Johan Santana about that. In addition to his great change, Wacha has phenomenal control, good stamina (consistently pitching deep into games this October), and handles pressure extraordinarily well.
The Weaknesses: As unfair as it may be, Wacha’s current weaknesses revolve around his youth and inexperience. Although he’s shown a stunning ability to pitch well under pressure in October, he’s never thrown 200 innings. Sure he looks like a workhorse, and seems to be the real deal, but he hasn’t done any of it yet. He could struggle next year, and nerves could get to him at some point. That said, these are less practical “here-and-now” weaknesses, and more hypothetical weaknesses based on the trends of others. It’s entirely possible that Wacha is as good as he looks.
In 2014: Next year, Wacha enjoys a breakout year in his first full season. I figure him as the third or fourth starter (behind Wainwright, Kelly, and possibly Garcia, Miller, or Lynn), but I also predict that he pitches like a number 1 starter. If the Cardinals let him, he records 200 innings and 200 strike outs in his first full season, while posting an ERA somewhere between 2.90 and 3.45 and winning 15 or more games.
In Five Years: I predicted a phenomenal season for Michael Wacha next year, but in five years, I think he’ll be twice as good. He’s one of two Cardinal pitchers that I feel have the capacity to be consistently better than Wainwright (I’ll get to the other one, don’t worry), and I think that Wacha will show it off early. Five years from now, he’ll be vying for Cy Young Awards, consistently putting up sub-3.00 ERAs (perhaps sub-2.00), and setting opposing batters down like no one else in the business. All that said, I don’t think that he’ll be the best pitcher on our team, and with Wainwright at the helm, and the mystery pitcher taking the number two spot, Wacha will remain as the Cardinals number 3 starter.
Of course it’s very hard to predict a player’s career based on his first eighteen starts. But if Wacha’s first eighteen meant anything at all, he has a very bright future and a great career ahead of him.