When Michael Wacha burst onto the scene in 2013, it was fair to assume that every St. Louis Cardinals fan had fallen in love. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. He kept outdoing himself. A near no-no against Washington in his final start (thanks Pete Kozma) and then 7 1/3 no-hit innings, facing elimination in a frenzied PNC Park. He topped it off by going toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS. Fozzy Bear was the talk of the town. Unfortunately midway through 2014 it came crashing down. A stress reaction, a rare but chronic condition (Brandon McCarthy is the best known case, we’ll get to him later), would sideline him for July and August. He would return, but his playoff performance would take a 180 degree turn. We all remember a shell of our former hero throwing up the white flag to Travis Ishikawa to end the 2014 NLCS in San Francisco. Many beers were drank that night.
All was not lost. He bounced back with a strong 2015 season that included an All-Star nod. Wacha would fade down the stretch as he threw a considerable innings load for the first time in his life. He started 2016 fine, but by late May it was clear that he was being affected by his shoulder again. Fighting through injury, he eventually succumbed and ended the season in the bullpen. Honestly, some fans talk about him like he was Kip Wells in 2007, but even in a greatly flawed season, he was not the worst starting pitcher on the staff. He still managed to outperform Jaime Garcia.
Something had to give.
In late February I read an article from Derrick Goold, detailing Wacha’s new training regimen that he had adopted this off-season. I encourage you to read the piece as it goes hand in hand with what I’m looking at today. Without going into details, the gist of the piece is that this winter Wacha’s agent reached out to Brandon McCarthy’s people and set him up with trainer Sam Mulroy. McCarthy had began working with him following the 2013 season hoping to remedy his chronic shoulder issue. Wacha worked with Mulroy this winter with the same goal in mind.
Now that spring is here we have seen impressive early returns from Wacha. To this point he has allowed just 2 ER in 13 IP along with 11 K’s. On Monday he was the first Cardinals pitcher to throw 5 innings in a start this spring. There is an argument that he is always strong to start the season, that these spring stats don’t mean he will hold up all year. It’s a valid point, he hasn’t proven his durability. The question with Wacha isn’t his talent, but when will the shoulder become a factor. So I decided to dig in and compare Wacha and his stress reaction brother, Brandon McCarthy. Is there hope to be found?
Following are the scatter charts for the vertical and horizontal release points on hard pitches for both pitchers. We can see that over their careers they generally operate out of a similar arm slot. Similar motion, similar injury. Makes sense.
Then I looked out how their vertical release point has varied across their career. Both pitchers entered the league with a significantly higher release point than they currently throw at. What we see with McCarthy is that when dealing with the injury in 2013 his release point drops noticeably. In 2014, the year following his work with Mulroy, we see a much more consistent release point throughout the year. With Wacha we can see a similar drop in 2014. In 2015, he found a consistent sweet spot in May through August. In 2016 he struggled with consistency. This is probably the result of just trying to find a way to pitch through the injury.
I took a look at the K% for both pitchers. In 2012 and 2013, years in which McCarthy was dealing with shoulder issues, we see a clear downward trend. He rebounded in 2014, specifically after being traded to the Yankees and resuming the use of his 4-seam fastball. He was then able to maintain the rest of the way. Wacha generally trends downward in both 2014 and 2016. 2015 is different but I dug a little deeper and found a trade off between K% and GB% happening that year. I included that graph.
Notice that Wacha’s GB% in 2015 runs in contrast to his K%, showing a give and take and explaining that outlier.
So about McCarthy…
Brandon McCarthy has been injury-prone throughout his career. His injury history runs as follows:
In 2014 McCarthy (again, his first year pitching after working with Mulroy) was able to pitch an entire season for the first time in his career. He made 32 starts throwing 200 innings. His 3.55 FIP was the second lowest of his career, topped only by a 2.86 in 2011. Also of note is that pre- and post- injury in 2013, McCarthy’s velocity on his cutter dropped from 90.5 to 88.5 mph. In 2014, his velocity on his cutter was at 91.7 April-June and 91.4 July-September, so he was able to maintain it unlike before.
By all accounts the new training regimen paid immediate dividends, and that’s where I find optimism for Wacha. Unfortunately McCarthy was hit with a UCL injury in 2015 and a hip issue in 2016, so we can’t see the long term effects of the training. However, the short-term has promise. It is also encouraging that McCarthy’s recent injuries were not related to his shoulder.
The bottom line.
Safe to say that McCarthy has dealt with much more than Wacha, but he has also been around longer. Hopefully Wacha has found the proper treatment for his ailment early enough in his career that he won’t have to go down the same road as McCarthy. We’ve heard the spring narrative before, that a guy did a new training program and is in the best shape of his life. We have learned to take that with a grain of salt. I find what Wacha did to be different than the norm. I see his change in training as a true, major alteration and one that has seen results. I’m a bit bullish that he can be a difference maker this season. When Wacha is right he is a #3 starter, if not better.
We really only have one season of sample size to judge the results of working with Mulroy. However, those results were encouraging enough that I believe we may see the Wacha that teased us late in 2013. If nothing else we can hang our hat on the this: NLCS MVP in 2013, All-star in 2015. We used to hear about the Giants in an even year, well how about Wacha in an odd year?
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