Michael Wacha Is Pitching Like It’s 2013

In most cases, a player’s end-of-season statistics provide a pretty decent sense of how his campaign went. Are his numbers good? Then he was probably good for most of the year. Below average? Chances are, he was generally weak.

This isn’t the case with Michael Wacha, however. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Wacha has put up at least 100 innings and a FIP below four every single year. The fraternity of pitchers who’ve done the same is pretty select. Chris Archer, Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom, Gio Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas KeuchelCorey Kluber, Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, Danny SalazarMax Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Justin Verlander are the only others ones to do it. The Cardinals right-hander has joined that group, however, not by means of consistently strong performances, but rather due to a combination of brilliant periods offset by decidedly poor ones.

After taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning on Sunday, Wacha appears to be in the midst of a good stretch currently. Wacha gained notoriety in 2013 when he finished off September with five good starts followed by an excellent run in the postseason before the Boston Red Sox got to him in the World Series. Since then, Wacha has had stretches of being a very good pitcher, but inconsistency and injuries have prevented Wacha from becoming the ace many hoped he would be after his late-season success in his first campaign. The chart below depicts Wacha’s 10-game rolling FIP since the beginning of 2014.

If there’s a pattern, it is that, at some point in every season, Wacha pitches really well for a time before things fall apart and he ends the season poorly. Wacha suffered a stress reaction in his scapula back in 2014, and has worked hard to strengthen his shoulder over the years, but he hasn’t yet found a solution to make it through the season unscathed. Last year was arguably Wacha’s best as a pro, but before a strong September, he struggled in August with a 5.24 FIP and a 6.04 ERA. While it is probably pretty easy to chalk up Wacha’s struggles to injury, breaking down his successes might be more useful in assessing his current talent level.

What we find below are Wacha’s best 10-start stretches from every season of his career, including his past 10 starts.

Michael Wacha t His Best
Period IP K% BB% HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP FIP- SwStk% FStk%
9/3/2013-Playoffs 62.0 25.3% 9.1% 0.58 .224 2.18 3.06 81 11.0% 58.7%
4/2/2014-5/21/2014 60.1 26.4% 6.8% 0.60 .302 2.54 2.85 78 12.1% 63.6%
6/4/2015-7/31/2015 62.0 25.3% 5.1% 0.73 .310 3.92 2.75 72 11.4% 65.6%
5/13/2016-7/3/2016 55.1 19.0% 8.1% 0.49 .343 5.37 3.24 79 8.5% 58.5%
6/15/2017-8/8/2017 56.2 25.6% 6.4% 0.64 .325 2.86 2.80 66 10.4% 65.4%
4/12/2018-6/3/2018 61.1 22.3% 8.3% 0.29 .241 1.91 2.75 70 11.0% 51.2%

We have to bend over backwards a bit to identify 10 strong starts from 2016, but there’s 60 starts of ace-level production in that table, roughly what deGrom has done over the past two calendar years with a 74 FIP- and 9.4 WAR, fifth in all of baseball during that time. Unfortunately for Wacha, these performances have stretched across six seasons instead of two. While the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 likely draw most of the attention when considering Wacha’s top performances, he was likely the best we’ve ever seen him in the middle of last year.

The performance from Wacha this season has several red flags when it comes to sustainability. The home-run rate is simply too low for any starter to maintain, and that .241 BABIP indicates he has been the beneficiary of a decent amount of luck. As to the batted-ball luck, Wacha’s FIP is still an excellent 2.75, which doesn’t factor BABIP into the equation. As for the homers, Wacha has shown some ability to suppress them over the course of his career, and even with a slight uptick in homers, he would still be well above average as a starter. Wacha is also not getting ahead in the count as much as he’s done in the past, though his whiff rate is better than it has been in several years.

To break Wacha’s numbers down a bit further, here is his pitch usage and whiff rate by pitch during the same periods used above.

Michael Wacha’s Change In Usage
Period FA FA Whiff Cutter Cutter Whiff CH CH Whiff CU CU Whiff
9/3/2013-Playoffs 63% 9.0% 3% 4.0% 26% 19.8% 8% 8.8%
4/2/2014-5/21/2014 59% 13.3% 12% 8.5% 19% 17.4% 10% 8.3%
6/4/2015-7/31/2015 58% 10.3% 14% 9.0% 18% 24.7% 10% 13.7%
5/13/2016-7/3/2016 50% 5.9% 18% 7.7% 22% 19.1% 10% 10.1%
6/15/2017-8/8/2017 50% 9.2% 20% 11.3% 16% 16.7% 13% 9.8%
4/12/18-6/3/2017 40% 8.2% 20% 11.6% 23% 22.4% 15% 6.0%

There are a couple different patterns here worth noting. First, Wacha’s fastball usage has gone down. The pitch hasn’t been as effective for him as it was earlier in his career, so the drop in usage makes sense. Second, the changeup, in terms of usage and whiff rate, might be the best it has ever been right now. Finally, the curveball — Wacha’s third-best pitch a few years ago — appears to have dropped down a notch as the cutter has become more effective. At 6-foot-6, Wacha is tall. In light both of his height and injury history, it’s not surprising that his mechanics can sometimes become troublesome. As Derrick Goold wrote after his start in Milwaukee, Wacha has better feel for his pitches than he has had in the past.

What has backed that role with performance is the feel Wacha has for more than the fastball and changeup that got him there. At the end of last year, he became more proficient with a curve, and this spring he left Florida with the start of a cutter that’s abuzz for him now. Wacha was able Tuesday to reach the lower part of the zone, where he lived in past years, for 10 groundouts, but he also moved to the other side of the plate with his cutter and he was able to elevate with his fastball. For the first time in his career, fewer than 50 percent of his pitches are fastballs, and that deft touch with three other pitches heightens the fastball’s effectiveness while making him less reliant on it.

To help illustrate how Wacha has improved, let’s examine his release point. Here’s Wacha’s release point from 2013 when he first came up, from Brooks Baseball.

Wacha mainly threw a fastball and change, and they were pretty close together in terms of where they were released. Here is the same information over the past six years.

In 2014, when Wacha got hurt, none of his pitches were released at the same point as his fastball. He’s been able to get his changeup closer over the years, but there has always been some distance on the cutter until this year. The table below shows the distance of Wacha’s release point from his fastball to the rest of his pitches over the years.

Michael Wacha’s Release Point Differences From Fastball
Season Cutter Changeup Curveball
2013 3.8 in. 3.3 in. 1.0 in.
2014 5.3 in. 5.0 in. 4.3 in.
2015 5.6 in. 2.9 in. 3.1 in.
2016 4.7 in. 3.1 in. 3.8 in.
2017 3.4 in. 1.2 in. 2.4 in.
2018 2.6 in. 0.6 in. 2.0 in.

Wacha has been much better at throwing his pitches from the same point as his fastball. That’s part of what has always made the changeup a good pitch — note Wacha’s whiff rate on the change was worst in 2014 when the release point was the furthest away from the fastball — and Wacha finally has his cutter within close range of his fastball. That deception gives hitters fewer cues to identify pitches and more trouble deciding whether to swing.

The changeup is always going to be Wacha’s best pitch, but he appears to have finally developed a good cutter that can be a decent weapon instead of something to throw to set up a putaway pitch. He threw more cutters than fastballs for the first time in his career on Sunday, and if he can maintain the feel of that pitch and stay healthy, Wacha will have the chance to improve on his career-best season from a year ago. We’ve seen Wacha put together a stretch like this before, but we’ve never seen him sustain it.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

Great article. The section on release point is very enlightening. You touched on this in the last paragraph, but it’s worth highlighting that his pitch mix in his near no-hitter on Sunday was drastically different than anything we’ve seen from him before. In his career he’s thrown ~55% 4-seam fastballs. That’s down to 42% this season and on Sunday it was all the way down to 25%, the lowest of any start in his career. In contrast, he’s thrown his cutter around ~15% of the time in his career, but it’s up to 20% this year and was over 30% on Sunday. Carlos Martinez added a cutter to his arsenal this year that he also appeared to be gaining a lot of confidence in before his injury. I wonder if these developments are related to Mike Maddux.