St. Louis Cardinals: Is Michael Wacha the key to Cardinals contention?

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Michael Wacha #52 of the St. Louis Cardinals poses for a portrait at Roger Dean Stadium on February 20, 2018 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Michael Wacha #52 of the St. Louis Cardinals poses for a portrait at Roger Dean Stadium on February 20, 2018 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals have spent a great deal to improve in many aspects, but starting pitching is not one of those things. With a solid rotation already in place, a Michael Wacha revival of sorts could be the key to the Cardinals making noise in the 2019 postseason.

Don’t get me wrong, Michael Wacha didn’t pitch poorly last season or anything, especially considering that he was hurt. His 3.20 ERA in 84.1 innings was similar to his second year in the league, though I would argue that the peripherals of his sophomore year like FIP and WHIP made that season better. Either way, Wacha is a solid pitcher when healthy, and the St. Louis Cardinals know this in spite of his struggles over the past few years.

We all know that there’s a much deeper well of talent there that has been muddied and covered up by injuries. While 2018 was no different in that regard, Wacha finally seemed to be getting back into a comfort zone that seemingly lost for a few seasons. It shows that there still might be a chance that we see Wacha put it all together in a way fans have been clamoring for for 5+ years.

So what if this is the year that Michael Wacha fully turns the corner? We saw a glimpse of his potential during his magical 2013 postseason run, and it was something special to watch. He finished with 21 innings pitched with just 1 run allowed off 8 hits and 4 walks to go with 22 strikeouts.

While it may be difficult to see him returning to form like that after all this time, but it has seemed to me like his growth as a pitcher has been evident by the sharp decreases in his ERA over the past several seasons. If we could see a healthy and improved Michael Wacha, it could do wonders for the St. Louis Cardinals.

I am not saying that he has to be lights out like that for 200 innings, but a say a healthy Wacha gets you a 3.05 ERA or so over a 150+ innings with the sharpness of his fastball returning to what it was earlier in his career. Wacha’s fastball that bored in on hitters from a high angle was one of the scarier pitches in the league a few years ago. 2014 saw batters whiff on Wacha’s fastball 11.75% of the time, but he hasn’t been able to reach 10% over a full season since.

He has compensated for this by working on his cutter, which Wacha has bumped up in use from 10.53% in 2014 to almost 20% in 2018. The pitch itself has brought along results to go with it, allowing batters to hit just .220 with a measly .300 SLG off the pitch in 2018. The funny thing is, his cutter still wasn’t anything spectacular, with league average velocity and slightly below average movement.

His cutter’s effectiveness was less about it’s powerful nature about more about how it plays on the rest of his arsenal, which is a testament to his experience. He isn’t just the young kid that lit up the baseball world with an electric fastball anymore. In fact, his four seam fastball rate has probably been the most dramatic change of his career, gradually dropping from 64.22% in 2013 to 52.81% in 2017 before a sharp fall to 41.71% in 2018.

He is still relatively young age wise at 27, but he has over 700 major league innings under his belt, and has shown through the way his pitching arsenal has changed that he has become a more intelligent pitcher in that time.

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Imagine what a healthy Wacha combining his powerful arsenal from earlier in his career with the experience to utilize each pitch in his repertoire in a complimentary manner. While the injury history is disheartening, he is still young enough where hoping that he truly breaks through is still within reach.

Another reason this would be so great is because of the impending regression of a few other starters. It’s hard to expect Miles Mikolas to repeat his ridiculous season, and there is an argument that Jack Flaherty is up for a bit of a step back himself.

But it’s the postseason where this would really pay off. Having a three headed monster of Carlos Martinez, Mikolas/Flaherty, and Wacha to lead the St. Louis Cardinals into the 2019 playoffs would have other teams sweating. Pair that with a revamped bullpen (that could include Adam Wainwright come October) and a hitting core that includes Matt CarpenterPaul Goldschmidt and a HEALTHY Marcell Ozuna, and you’re suddenly cooking.

The Cards have improved dramatically in their worst facets from 2018, and have turned themselves into a well-rounded and hopefully well-oiled machine. A healthy Michael Wacha — even if he simply maintains his solid performance from last year — could turn the Cardinals from just a balanced team to a legitimately scary one.

Next. What to do with Jose Martinez. dark

The St. Louis Cardinals have stuck with Wacha through his injury strife, and continue to show faith in him to this day. Whether or not he will be able to stay healthy enough to pay that faith back remains to be seen, but a Michael Wacha revival would put the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals in the thick of the National League race, and maybe even serve as the final piece for a World Series team.