St. Louis Cardinals: The Regression of Michael Wacha
He was once thought of as a front of the rotation starter, maybe even a future ace for the St. Louis Cardinals, but injuries and age seem to be finally catching up to Michael Wacha.
A first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 draft, the big right-hander made his MLB debut in May of the following year. A stellar rookie year that included being named 2013 NLCS MVP was followed up by a 2015 All-Star appearance.
With two big wins in the 2013 NLCS, including out dueling LA Dodgers Ace Clayton Kershaw, the rookie hurler was being compared to some of the franchise’s greatest arms of all time. In 2015 he would go 17-7 on the season and earn his first NL All-Star appearance. Since that time, Wacha has been on a gradual decline marred by injury shortened seasons and diminishing returns when he is healthy.
It‘s a downward cycle many major league pitchers endure. While some never recover and eventually just fizzle out, others can evolve and reclaim their command of the mound. The question now for the St. Louis Cardinals is which way will Michael Wacha go?
Through his first four starts of the season for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wacha has struggled in 2019. Through 21 innings, he has issued 14 walks and given up 5 home runs. He owns a 4.45 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP.
While the ERA and WHIP are far from being the worst in the National League, Wacha’s command and an early tendency to give up the long ball that is most concerning. To put this in perspective, he allowed 9 HRs and issued 36 walks in 84 1/3 innings in 2018!
Some times pitchers can be the victims of tough luck and bad breaks that will inflate an ERA or a WHIP. But when you look another level deeper on the numbers, it‘s clear hitters have been smashing the ball against Wacha so far this year:
Wacha’s percentage of hits allowed going for extra bases (X/H%) is at a whopping 60%! That‘s high for any starting pitcher and nearly double his career number (33%). Add to that the fact that 20% of all fly balls hit off Wacha this season have left the yard (HR/FB) and a disturbing pattern is developing.
MLB Statcast uses the category of “hard hit%” as one indicator of the quality of swings hitters are getting against any certain pitcher. Wacha‘s hard hit% so far is at 42.9%. That‘s a lot of balls coming hard off opposing bats.
And opposing hitters are having no trouble putting the ball into play all over the field.
All of the numbers are backed up by the eyeball test. When watching Wacha pitch these season it’s clear he‘s leaving a sub 95 MPH fastball over the plate way too often. Some of that‘s an issue of pitch placement, but the bigger concern is the erosion of the speed of his fastball.
Using data from FanGraphs to look at Wacha’s pitching log from 2014-2019 seems to confirm his overall velocity is down significantly.
Another helpful graph from Brooks Baseball shows Wacha‘s vertical movement on his pitches has also declined.
Put these things together and you get a clear picture of Michael Wacha in 2019: a veteran pitcher whose lost both speed and movement on his key pitches. While Wacha is not unique in his current situation, how he is able to overcome it will define the rest of his career.
Some pitchers develop a new breaking ball or off-speed pitch. Some learn to spot the corners of the strike zone better. Whatever he and Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux come up with, it’s clear Wacha no longer has the stuff to pitch to the middle of the zone.
This year is a contract year for Michael Wacha. Questions about his durability and health probably kept Cardinals management from already putting an extension on the table. Even though much of that is out of his control, Wacha could make a statement by evolving into a savvy veteran who finds new ways to get opposing batter outs for the St. Louis Cardinals.