Note: I don’t actually know if Michael Wacha thinks that. The headline is hyperbolic in nature, designed to convey the ideas from the article in a way that make you want to read said article. Michael Wacha might think pitching inside is really smart. I haven’t asked him. I doubt it, though.
Yesterday, with his team facing elimination, Michael Wacha shut down the Pirates. Not just in a good October performance kind of way, but in a you-can’t-hit-this-so-stop-trying kind of way. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and left having only allowed Pedro Alvarez to deposit one into the seats. For the day, he allowed a BABIP of .000, and it didn’t look like great defense being played behind him. It was just Michael Wacha dominating a pretty solid offense.
But perhaps the most amazing part is he did it with half the strike zone. The outer half, specifically. Michael Wacha decided that he simply didn’t have any interest in throwing to the inner half of the plate, and if the Pirates were going to hit him, they were going to have to do it by getting extension and driving a ball the other way.
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here are the Zone Profiles from Wacha’s start yesterday. The first image is against right-handed hitters, the second one is against lefties.
These are from the catcher’s perspective, so the left hand of the RHB chart represents inside pitches, and the right hand of the LHB chart represents the same. Notice all the blue.
The nice thing about Brooks’ chart is that it gives us the actual counts, not just the visual representation. So, we can look at that chart and turn it into actual numbers. Here’s how his locations break down by handedness.
|Split||Pitches||Inside||Percentage||Inside Balls||Inside Strikes|
Michael Wacha threw 96 pitches yesterday, and exactly two of them were on the inside half of the plate and within the borders of the strike zone. 12 times, he went inside and either placed it too high, too low, or too far inside, essentially forcing hitters looking for a middle-in pitch to chase something out of the zone. The rest of the game was almost exclusively away, away, away.
There’s a school of thought that says you have to pitch inside a fair amount to keep batters honest. If you just pound the outer half of the zone, they’ll start to hang over the plate, and then they’ll just start crushing those outside pitches like they’re middle-middle fastballs. The theory is that you have to back a guy off to get him to respect that a pitch may come in on his hands, or at some other part of his body. There’s probably something to it, but it also seems like it’s wildly overstated.
Michael Wacha has been in the big leagues for a few months. Counting yesterday’s start, he’s faced 285 batters in MLB, and he hasn’t hit a single one. And this pitching outside thing is hardly new for him. For instance, here are his zone profiles for the entire season:
It isn’t quite as extreme as it was yesterday, but there’s still a lot of blue on those charts, especially the Vs LHB chart. Michael Wacha just doesn’t pitch left-handed hitters on the inside half of the plate. He just pounds them on the outer half, and has since he got called up to the big leagues. Left-handed batters, during the regular season, hit .195/.254/.239 against Wacha. Yesterday, they went 1-10 with three strikeouts, so even though the one hit was a home run, they went .100/.100/.400 against him.
Wacha is right-handed, and he has dominated left-handed hitters since getting to the big leagues. And he’s done it with half the plate. He hasn’t kept guys honest. He hasn’t put one in a lefty’s back just to send a message. His plan has been to stay away from left-handers and force them to hit his ridiculous change-up as it dives away from them. They’ve tried, and they’ve failed.
Against lefties, Michael Wacha is a two pitch guy who uses half the plate. It’s fastball/change, and it’s always on the outer half. There’s not a lot of game theory here. This isn’t deception or trickery. This is a pitcher with two plus pitches and fantastic command regularly putting the ball in unhittable spots. Opposing hitters know what Wacha is going to do to them, and yet they still can’t hit it.
That’s dominance. And that’s probably why Michael Wacha is in the Cardinals rotation for the playoffs. He might not have a flashy breaking ball, but his command of two terrific pitches gives him a huge advantage. And he’s smart enough to know exactly how to use those pitches.
Wacha seems content to let everyone else in baseball man up and challenge hitters inside. He’ll just keep getting hitters out instead.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.