Michael Wacha: A Thin Line Between Good and Great


Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals entered the league in 2013 as an almost whirlwind sensation. He had spent little time in the minor leagues. Catcher Yadier Molina said in the spring of that year that Wacha was ready for the major leagues at the beginning of the season. He was the MVP of the National League Championship Series, and sort of a secret weapon deployed against the Red Sox in the World Series, which the Cardinals lost in six games.

He is among the league leaders in strikeouts, with 66. Presently, he is the number two starter on the club, behind staff ace Adam Wainwright. Wacha gets it done basically with two pitches: an explosive four-seam fastball and an excellent changeup. He throws a curveball, and sometimes a cutter, but these are “show-me” pitches he doesn’t–or can’t–use to get outs.

Michael Wacha‘s ERA+ is 141, and he strikes out almost 10 batters per nine innings. However, his strikeout rate, and his dominance, have pulled back in his last three outings. What could be going on?

Redbird Rants used Brooks Baseball for the numbers in this story. Wacha’s velocity has held steady during this period. Some salient points: Wacha is getting fewer whiffs on his fastball–45 in April, 29 in May. In April, 20% of swings on his changeup were whiffs. That is down to 12% this month. Also, when batters do make contact with his changeup, they have been nine times more likely this month to hit a fly ball.

In his last three outings, Wacha struck out five Cubs, four Diamondbacks, and two Yankees. He went seven innings twice, and six innings in the Diamondbacks game.

Wacha, so far, cannot induce outs with one of his pitches. No batter has yet to swing at his curveball. This is his mini-dilemma. His stuff is so good that he can thrive as a two-pitch starter. But his ability to dominate may be regressing to what the scouts originally said about him in college: he is very polished, but his ceiling is as a mid-rotation pitcher.

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When he came up, major league hitters had never seen Wacha before, and they relied on scouting reports and video to prepare for him. Now, enough batters have actually faced him, and are putting together live experience with the scouting reports. Batters spit on the curveball. They know about the changeup, and are making contact more often. They are hitting more fastballs in the air.

This could be a speed bump, or over-analysis. It could also be a harbinger of the future reality of Michael Wacha starts. He will have to adjust, or the club and fans must do so. Right now, Wacha is an elite major league starting pitcher. How long can he stay one with effectively two pitches? I’m concerned hitters are ruling out pitches–and hitting the other ones more.

As Tim McCarver said on Fox Sports Midwest Monday, “Michael Wacha is not a pitch-to-contact guy.” He’s not. He’s a strikeout and fly ball guy.