Cardinals: Michael Wacha Might Be Legitimately Good, Again

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What a year it has been for Michael Wacha. What a frustrating year. Going into the season, one of the few things I felt was a given in the Cardinals rotation was his performance. When healthy, he has always been no worse than solid. As long as he stayed off of the IL, he would be a rock solid #3.

I thought.

It hasn’t been the case.

Despite being healthy for most of the year — he had one stint on the IL with a sore knee — his performance has been severely lacking and way down from his career standards.

A Bad Year

The following shows Wacha’s career numbers vs. his 2019 numbers, through August 5th.

2013-18 STAT 3/31-8/5/19
3.77 ERA 5.54
.250 AVG .301
.698 OPS .917
.304 wOBA .378
20.9 K% 17.9
7.9 BB% 10.4
3.68 FIP 4.58
31.7 Hard% 40.1

As you can see, everything was significantly worse.

Also notable was the continuation of a velocity drop that amounted to roughly a 2 mph drop on every pitch since 2017. Stuff and results were both issues.

But why did I cut off his 2019 at August 5th?

Well, August 5th was his maligned return to the rotation, in which the Dodgers blasted him early.

However, since that game — beginning with his start on August 15th — results have changed.

Over his last 5 games — from 8/15 thru 9/4 — Wacha has:

  • 22.2 IP
  • 2.78 ERA
  • .224 AVG
  • .663 OPS
  • .283 wOBA
  • 25.3 K%
  • 8.4 BB%
  • 4.58 FIP
  • 35.5 Hard%

If you quickly reference those with the career numbers in the previous table, you’ll see that his last 2 weeks track well with his career numbers.

Now, 2 weeks and 22.2 innings is not a big sample size. Back in June, Wacha tossed a strong 2.1 innings in relief against Cincinnati. That got him a start against the Marlins the following week, and he pitched 6 shutout innings. The success didn’t last, the Marlins were a mirage.

At that time, I did research for a post that was never written, because I found no change — in velocity, pitch location, release point, or pitch usage — that indicated Wacha was actually doing anything different. He managed to get different results against a bad offensive team using the same stuff and approach he had been using all season. It was a dead end. Small sample randomness.

This time, it’s different. There is change.

First, I want to briefly mention that Wacha has seen some rebound in velocity. Compared to Mar/Apr thru June — most of July was in bullpen, so velocity naturally had uptick — he is throwing every pitch .5-1.0 mph harder on average in August. That isn’t a HUGE jump, but it is an improvement and can’t be overlooked.

Next is a new approach.

Wacha’s change in approach was first alerted by Viva El Birdos following his August 20th start. What they document is that he made a dramatic change in the usage of his change-up and cutter, increasing the use of one while decreasing the other. They dive deeper, and I highly recommend following the link above or at the bottom of this post.

This is the data from Brooks-Baseball on Wacha’s pitch usage (percent) this year:

Mar-Jul PITCH August
49.13 4-Seam 51.43
17.77 Cutter 9.27
11.59 Curve 8.17
20.61 Change 28.48

This is a marked change in approach from the rest of his season, throwing his 3rd and 4th best pitch less and his best 2 pitches more. It sounds so simple.

Consider that through the Dodger’s game, opponents had hit:

  • .326 vs. 4-Seam
  • .356 vs. Cutter
  • .500 vs. Curve
  • .188 vs. Change-Up

The answer was obvious. Don’t throw the pitches that are getting crushed as often. That’s what he has done, and found success.

Over his last 5 games, this is what opponents have done:

  • .237 vs. 4-Seam
  • .200 vs. Cutter
  • .000 vs Curve (only 2 put in play)
  • .172 vs Change-Up

With less frequent and better usage of his secondary pitches, they haven’t killed him the way they had earlier in the year. The Change-up has sustained success and has always been his best pitch.

What stood out to me was the improved success of his fastball. I assumed that the increase in Change-up usage was helping his fastball to be more effective, as the two pitchers are meant to play off of each other. There turned out to be a little more to that.

Release Point

Something that gets talked about frequently with Wacha is how his release point has dropped significantly from his early career, and how he doesn’t have the same “downward plane” on his fastball that he used to.

All of this is true, and the changing release point has likely been a culprit behind his changing stuff. I’ve often wondered if physical limitations from — and to avoid re-occurrence of — the stress reaction in his shoulder is the cause of the change, meaning a return to a 2013-14 release point is impossible. That doesn’t really matter here, but it is worth noting.

I found some interesting data regarding his release point on Brooks-Baseball, and it relates directly to the Fastball/Change-up dynamic and his recent success.

First, his vertical release point on the two pitches has been close all season. Based on the data from Brooks-Baseball, the two have stayed close enough to mostly be within the 95% confidence interval of each other. So vertically the to have always been in the same ballpark, there hasn’t been a significant change here.

However, the horizontal release point is a different story. For the majority of the season, Wacha has released his Change-up 1 to 2 inches further from his body than he was releasing his fastball.

Starting with the Dodger’s game, the Fastball and Change-up are coming from virtually the same spot.

Yes, its been trending away from his body, overall, but the key here is the two pitches in relation to each other.

The FB/CH combo coming from the same spot happened only one time prior to August — the good relief appearance vs. Cincy — but has happened in 4 of his last 6 games. (And I’m willing to excuse loose mechanics in his short-rest game from Wednesday.)

The two pitches are already meant to be thrown off of each other, but now they are coming from the same spot, which makes it harder for the batter to differentiate and make a decision. I think that this development with the horizontal release point is the reason his fastball has become more effective in recent games. I also hypothesize that the increased usage in those pitches — and decrease in the others — has made it easier for him to repeat his delivery for his two best pitches.

Full Circle Changes

So the usage helps the repeatable mechanics, and the repeated mechanics increase effectiveness of the pitches, and the greater usage of effective pitches leads to better in-game results.

It all ties in together to create a version of Michael Wacha that actually is different and is better than the one we saw for the first 4 months of the year.

  • Small increase in velocity.
  • Change in pitch usage.
  • Improved release point (better pitch tunneling).

Those are 3 clear changes between most-of-2019 Wacha and last-two-weeks Wacha, and the existence of those changes means that the improved results are likely legitimate and not just small sample randomness.

The key is for Wacha to sustain these changes. If he does, then he is a solid back-end starter that keeps the Cardinals in games, with the potential for more — as we saw in the 7 inning, 3-hit game against Cincinnati.

Being a decent 5th starter doesn’t sound too exciting, but considering his first half numbers could have warranted a DFA for a player with less organizational good will, it’s a major development. Not relying on a wing and a prayer every 5th day will be big during what is sure to be a divisional dogfight over the final 3 weeks.

Mr. Wacha, it’s nice to have you back.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to FanGraphs and BrooksBaseball for the numbers. Thanks to Viva El Birdos for the excellent initial discovery.

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