St. Louis Cardinals: Moving Michael Wacha into the closer’s role
As the St. Louis Cardinals continue to search for a new closer, the idea of Michael Wacha as closer has certainly crossed the minds of some fans.
You would think with the St. Louis Cardinals‘ Winter Warm Up festivities just around the corner, the team would have made another big move to galvanize the fan base once again after trading for Marcell Ozuna a little under a month ago. However, in the three weeks since the trade for Ozuna, the team’s radio silence in the free agent market and trade market have come under some intense scrutiny.
Of course, what doesn’t help is the amount of questions still facing the team, a month from pitchers and catchers reporting to Jupiter. While questions about a starting pitcher and who will play first or third base still matter, the closer’s role still is the most important question still unanswered.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gone through different scenarios. I’ve talked about who would be the better acquisition between Wade Davis and Alex Colome. After Davis’ signing, I talked about Greg Holland and Colome. I even wrote up on what a potential trade for Colome and Chris Archer would like for the St. Louis Cardinals. Even after all those articles, I, just like the rest of Cardinal Nation, have no idea what the heck this team is going to do before Spring Training starts.
However, some debate on Twitter and a debate with my friend sparked some interest for me. What if the St. Louis Cardinals decided to go a different route with their closer? Sure, there are internal candidates like Tyler Lyons and Luke Gregerson. However, what if the Cardinals decided to use Michael Wacha as their closer for the 2018 season?
Sounds crazy, but I see three reasons as to why the Cardinals could go down that path.
Ever since Michael Wacha went on the disabled list due to shoulder injury in 2014, the fear has always been when will the injury resurface. Wacha showed the ability to put his injuries beside him in 2015 by throwing 181.1 innings after throwing just a mere 107 in 2014. Then Wacha fell back on the disabled list late in 2016 with shoulder inflammation, again playing to the fear of surgery.
Wacha was able to overcome his injury in 2016 with a very nice 2017 campaign. He threw 165.2 innings and managed to start as many games (30) as he did in his 2015 All-Star season. He proved to the Cardinals, at the time, he was strong enough to start. With some off-season training, Wacha strengthened his shoulder enough to withstand the long grind of the season. However, as I said before, it’s only a matter of when will his shoulder will bark at him again.
I haven’t seen anything to suggest his shoulder is hurting him, but if you sense the pattern in the paragraphs above, don’t be surprised if Wacha has any shoulder issues in the 2018 season. If the St. Louis Cardinals get any sense of that, then it may be time to change his role in the organization. The Cardinals cannot afford to have question marks in the starting rotation regarding Wacha’s health every single off-season.
The less innings Wacha pitches, the less irritation in the shoulder. While some may argue closer’s receive strenuous work as well, the Cardinals signed Gregerson for a reason. Gregerson can step in when needed to close games out. Another argument is that starters are going out there for six to seven innings at a time. Relievers usually see an inning or two of action if needed.
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By moving Wacha to the closer’s role, he would see his work load cut in half. Let’s consider what Holland and Colome pitcher last season. Holland threw 57.1 innings in 2017, while Colome threw 66.2 innings.
If there was an argument against this, however, it would be can Wacha get into the routine of being a reliever? He would have the endurance, no question, but can Wacha get a feel for all his pitches with the limited amount of time relievers typically have to get ready to pitch? There could be some cause for concern there.
Just how good are Wacha’s change-up and fastball? To give you an idea, I decided to use QOP Baseball’s pitch quality calculations , in 2017, to help get us to an answer. To help understand the chart some more, the calculations rank from 4.00 (poor quality) to 6.00 (excellent quality). As you can see, certain pitchers did not throw every type of pitch dictated by the chart. QOPA stands for quality of pitch analysis.
Here are the pitch designations:
CH: change-up FF: four-seam fastball
CU: curveball FS: split-finger fastball
FC: cutter FT: two-seam fastball
NP: number of pitches thrown
There are definitely some great takeaways from these two charts. However, I’d like to point out an observation before we go any further.
The amount of pitches Wacha threw compared to the other three pitchers is staggering. In some cases, Wacha threw 1,700 more pitches than one of the game’s best closer. It’s clear the amount of repetitions for a certain pitch has a direct impact on the quality of pitch. The more times Wacha has a chance to throw his change-up, the better it should become over time.
However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fair comparison. The amount pitches thrown by Wacha also means more room for error as well. If anything, Wacha’s number should provide a true feel for what he is capable of given the larger sample size. If Wacha innings and pitches are limited, I’m sure we would see some changes. The intriguing part, though, would be whether the numbers would go up or down.
So, does Wacha have the stuff to be a closer?
Let’s start with his fastball, including his two-seam fastball and cutter. Based on the charts, his fastball is his highest rated pitch he throws. With the combination of speed and power he generates, there is no doubt Wacha’s fastball is as good as the other three closers. His four-seam fastball is seven percent better, according to the chart.
Wacha’s four -seam fastball on average is a higher quality pitch, and to top it off comes in at hitters at 95.6 MPH on average. Colome’s fastball’s average MPH is 95.5, while Holland and Davis hover right around 95 MPH. We also know Wacha can dial it up to 98 MPH and even triple digits sometimes.
The same could be said about Wacha’s two-seam fastball as well. Wacha is almost a full point above the only other pitcher who employs a two-seam fastball. To be exact, Wacha’s two-seam fastball is fifteen percent better than Davis’. His pitch quality between his four-seam and two-seam aren’t different enough to suggest one is better than the other. However, it does matter to a hitter, considering the two-seam fastball is more difficult to hit.
The one fastball-style pitch that doesn’t quite match up to his other fastballs is his cut-fastball. To his credit, Wacha started developing this pitch not too long ago, so that could explain the 4.85 rating. However, if we look at the other two pitchers who use the cut-fastball, we can see Wacha isn’t that far behind. If it still is a work-in-progress, then he is doing a good job of developing the pitch.
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While Wacha’s fastball measures up to the other closers in the chart, what separates him from the other three is his change-up.
While it isn’t Wacha’s highest rated pitch, it probably is his best one because of the degree of difficulty to hit it.
With an average speed of 87MPH, Wacha’s change-up has the ability to fool hitters, especially those who like to hit fastballs only.
The only other pitcher who employs a change-up is Colome, who rarely throws one himself. Colome’s 4.06 rating tells the story of why he typically is a fastball pitcher first.
However, if Wacha were able to close and throw his change-up for strikes, it would be a huge weapon.
One thing it reminds me of is Adam Wainwright pitching to Carlos Beltran in the NLCS in 2006. If you can remember, Yadier Molina originally called for a fastball, but changed his mind before Wainwright delivered. Molina went to Wainwright’s change-up, and it was called a strike. Beltran didn’t even try to swing at it.
That’s the kind of pitch sequencing Wacha could have with hitters. Imagine facing a 87MPH change-up only to be followed by a 96-98 MPH fastball. Not many closers have that in today’s game. Actually, not many pitchers have that in general.
Speculation about starting pitching
These ideas just don’t pop out of thin air, right? I mean, people have speculated moving Wacha to the bullpen before, even as early as last year. But, the St. Louis Cardinals are, and have always been, intent on keeping Michael Wacha in the rotation as long as he is healthy. So why else would we consider making this move?
Recently, the starting pitching speculation picked back up with reports of interest between the Cardinals and Jake Arrieta. While some think it is just talk to up the price on Arrieta for the Cubs, others truly think the Cardinals will get Arrieta to bolster the rotation. I’d take Arrieta, for the right price. However, think about what that means for the rotation right now.
The St. Louis Cardinals went out and signed Miles Mikolas to anchor their rotation. Outside of that, there is no rotation spot for another starter. Carlos Martinez, Luke Weaver, and Miles Mikolas are all pretty much guaranteed locks. If Alex Reyes were healthy, he would replace Mikolas. We will just have to wait a little bit longer.
That just leaves us Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
I’m sure the vast majority of you are thinking, “Okay, so what if Wainwright goes to the bullpen?” While I’d agree with you somewhat, how exactly do you think that conversation would go down? If the St. Louis Cardinals are not willing to shell out $17 million a season for Wade Davis, then why would they put Adam Wainwright in the bullpen at $19.5 million? They won’t do that even if it is against their better judgement.
Wacha, on the other hand, presents a unique opportunity for the Cardinals. His salary will come cheaper than Greg Holland. You don’t have to trade anyone to get Alex Colome from the Rays, meaning the prospects could be used elsewhere to get another bat. You open a spot in the rotation for someone like Arrieta to slide in next to Carlos Martinez.
Is it fool proof? No. There are plenty concerns. I mentioned earlier Wacha would need to learn how to prepare to pitch quicker than what he is used to as a starter. That could spell trouble for his shoulder if he doesn’t loosen the area correctly. Plus, he has never been a relieve before. We would be relying on someone who’s never closed a game before.
Next: Donaldson trade proposal
This is definitely not a scenario I believe will play out, but it certainly offers some intrigue surrounding the St. Louis Cardinals’ rumor of starting pitching. Let me know what you think will happen in the comments below.