Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Wacha: What's Bothering Him? Maybe Nothing

Some might have been surprised at the time, as this came just after Michael Wacha had thrown only nine pitches to get three outs in order in the third inning Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays. The following inning, Wacha allowed four runs on four hits and back-to-back walks of the number eight and nine hitters, Yunel Escobar and Ryan Hanigan. The score was 4-3 Rays after four innings.

“It wasn’t very good at all,” Wacha said. “Way too many walks and giving up hits in critical spots. … It’s very frustrating. Too many mistakes. It’s either a ball or right down the middle, it seemed like.” (To Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

Wacha walked four and for the first time in his career struck out no one in his five innings on Wednesday. Batters didn’t swing and miss once against three of his four offerings–the changeup, curve, or cutter. In fact, three changeups were turned into hits, and nine balls in play were generated off the cutter, with one going for a hit.

Michael Wacha‘s FIP–Fielding Independent Pitching number–which is a formula that takes out all the things a pitcher can’t account for like defense, random luck, etc., but does account for what a pitcher can control–walks, strikeouts, and homers–is 2.93. This is very comfortably close to his good ERA of 2.88.

Despite last night’s control problems, Wacha’s walk rate has remained steady. He’s giving up about the same number of hits, and his homer rate is actually a little lower than last year’s abbreviated season at the big league level. Strikeouts are down recently from around nine to eight per nine innings. His velocity has not dipped.

Fastball command was the problem last night for Michael Wacha. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said Wacha had problems finding a consistent release point–many of his fastballs were either way high or in the dirt. What could be causing such a problem?

One possibility is attempting to master two extra pitches at the same time. When he came up, Wacha threw four-seam fastballs, changeups, and a “show-me” curve. This year he appears determined to broaden his repertoire, and is having mixed results using more curves and cutters. More pitch types means the pitcher may pay greater conscious attention to the release point itself. This heightened self-consciousness could interfere with control of his two best pitches–the fastball and changeup.

A solution? Simplify: ditch either the cutter or the curve temporarily. Use the short-term keeper more sparingly, as he did in 2013. Re-establish the purpose and command of the four-seamer. Restore the mind-body connection that seemed to visibly wither in St. Petersburg.

Nothing about Michael Wacha’s statistical line shows that there is something badly amiss about his performances. Optimists, and realists, can rejoice. Getting back to basics may be a place to start for him to regain dominance for the St. Louis Cardinals.

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