Michael Wacha on Evolving as a Pitcher (But Keeping His Bread and Butter)

Michael Wacha
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Wacha is, in many ways, the same pitcher who broke into the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. The changeup is still his best weapon, and his fastball velocity has remained in the 93–95-mph range throughout. The 31-year-old right-hander has changed teams a few times, but he’s largely kept the same identity.

There have been tweaks to his repertoire and pitch usage. That’s inevitable over the course of what has been a 10-year career, one that will continue will a team yet to be determined. Following seven years as a Cardinal and subsequent one-year stints with the New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays, and Boston Red Sox, Wacha is now a free agent. He’s hitting the open market on a high note; in 23 starts comprising 127.1 innings last season, the Texas A&M product went 11–2 with a 3.32 ERA.

Wacha discussed his evolution as a pitcher on the final day of the 2022 regular season.


David Laurila: To varying degrees, all pitchers evolve. How many times would you say you’ve changed over the years?

Michael Wacha: “From my rookie year, I’d probably say… a couple of times? But I don’t know. I mean, each year I’m trying to work on something different to help out my repertoire, to bolster it or make it better. So it’s kind of hard to say, but there have been a couple of changes.”

Laurila: Can you give any examples?

Wacha: “Adding the curveball is one. When I first got called up, I was fastball/changeup and was really working on trying to spin the ball. Once I started being able to lay the curveball in for some strikes, I felt I needed to add a cutter or slider, something that was sharper and a little more horizontal to run away from righties, and to get in on lefties. That was a priority going into the offseason.”

Laurila: This being the offseason of…?

Wacha: “Adding in the little cutter-slider thing was probably 2015. From there it has developed into what it is today, although back in 2020, I thought it would be a good idea to kind of lower my arm angle. That didn’t work out well for me.”

Laurila: I assume the objective had been to add more horizontal?

Wacha: “Yep. And it was making my slider better, but it took away from my best pitch, the changeup. So I evaluated after that season and decided to get my arm angle back up. This was going into 2021. Basically, I wanted to get my fastball/changeup bread and butter back, and whatever horizontal I’d been getting from the lower arm angle would have to suffer from what I was trying to accomplish. That said, I’m always working on getting some more horizontal to the slider/cutter from the [higher] arm angle.”

Laurila: What kind of action do you get on your changeup?

Wacha: “I’d say I try to get more depth on it than horizontal run. I’m trying to create that fastball exploding up, and then have the change riding down — depthy down.”

Laurila: Are you satisfied with the amount of ride you get on your fastball?

Wacha: “I was kind of introduced to all this stuff, the horizontal and vertical movement on the ball, in 2020. That was the year I dropped my arm. I was with the Mets, and because it was a short season I didn’t really get the full grasp of all of it. I really dug into it in 2021. We’ve got the metrics and all the visuals to see what’s effective and what’s not. So to answer your question, I’ll pop some 20 verticals every now and then. I try to keep it around there, if I can.”

Laurila: Some pitchers feel it can be counter-productive to pay a lot attention to the metrics — chase the numbers, so to speak — while others keep close tabs on them. Where do you fit into that equation?

Wacha: “I’m definitely more balanced, because as a pitcher, I know if it’s a good pitch or not. I don’t need the numbers to tell me, ‘Hey, that was a good pitch; that’s going to play.’ I usually know out of the hand if it’s going to be an effective pitch in the game.”

Laurila: You were with the Rays [in 2021]. When you got there, did they suggest you throw a certain pitch more often, or to different areas?

Wacha: “There was a little bit of that. They’re very individual with how they approach it. Early on in the year, we had certain goals for myself — how I wanted to use my repertoire — but as the season progressed, it went toward a different route, and we ended up having some success a different way. That was from me and the staff working together on how my pitches were playing in games, and how they could be effective.”

Laurila: What didn’t work out as originally planned?

Wacha: “Early on, they wanted me to throw — I wanted to, as well — more cutters/sliders, and also to get my changeup usage up. We wanted to throw the fastball less. But my cutter/slider was just really inconsistent that year. There would be times where it was breaking really good, and those games were great, but at other times I would throw a couple of sharp ones and then lose the feel for it. So we reevaluated. I added a two-seam in there and then started throwing my curveball a lot more toward the end of the year. That served as a speed differential to steal a strike at 73–75 mph.”

Laurila: What’s the story behind your two-seamer?

Wacha: “In college and early on in my career, it was four-seams to go outside and two-seams arm-side, for the most part. Then, in 2020/2021, they were like, ‘Hey, throw your four-seam more; it’s got the ride we’re looking for,’ so I kind of got away from the two-seam. But at times, guys were just catching up to the fastball, to my four-seamer. These hitters… I mean, you go down to the cage and you see what they’re working on, they’re trying to hit that riding fastball at the top of the zone. They’re getting on top of it, and then you see that translating into games. So I started mixing in a different fastball. It’s the same speed but a totally different look than my four-seam.”

Laurila: What has been your best pitch over the years?

Wacha: “I’ve got to go with my changeup. It’s been my go-to, my swing-and-miss, my weak-contact pitch. If I need to get out of a jam or if I’m in a spot, I’ll usually go to that one.”

Laurila: Has it always been the same pitch?

Wacha: “I switched up the grip in college, and pretty much from there it’s been the same pitch. I have gotten better feel for it and am able to manipulate it at times to either get more depth or more horizontal. The grip is basically just a four-seam circle. Here is my fastball, and then I’ll just shuffle it over like this. I don’t touch there…”

Laurila: You don’t touch your fingers to make a complete circle.

Wacha: “Correct, so it’s a modified circle. I call it a claw grip. I’ve got it tucked in deep and try to kill as much spin on it as I can. I try to pronate the crap out of it at release and let it do its thing.”

Laurila: You said you can manipulate it to get more depth, or more horizontal.

Wacha: “Right. That’s more on the finish. If I want more depth, I’ll try to get more on top of it. If I want more horizontal, there will be a little bit more pronate to it.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Wacha: “As a pitcher, I think about getting ahead. I feel like the best pitch in baseball is strike one. If you look at the numbers, all throughout baseball, pitchers have always had better success when getting ahead of batters. I feel like that’s a good mentality to have, and it’s kind of where I’m at right now.”

Laurila: It’s safe to say that most every pitcher would agree with that. At the same time, it’s not as though you can go out there and simply throw a pitch over the plate.

Wacha: “You’re right. It’s about quality first-pitch strikes, and that’s not a fastball every time. It’s mixing 0–0s to keep them off balance. The key is to throw the first strike with everything in your repertoire. You don’t want to be predictable.”

Laurila: One last thing: What is your get-better plan for this offseason?

Wacha: “I want to continue working on the command of all of my pitches. I want get my off-speed pitches a little sharper. I want to get that glove-side fastball command dialed back in to where it was in the middle of the season, toward the end. And then, every offseason, I’m working to get that slider to where I need it to be, so that it can be an effective swing-and-miss pitch, down and away to righties. The changeup is always going to be there — I do need to make sure that I keep the feel for it — but a better slider against righties would really help me out.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

Always liked him. I wish the Cards would bring him back.