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St. Louis Cardinals: The Michael Wacha Predicament

Cardinals Starting pitchers dominated against Pittsburgh, including Wacha

On Tuesday I wrote about how St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and former Baseball America Top 100 prospect Michael Wacha was facing a make-or-break season in 2017. His precarious position with the team has been facilitated by an annually worsening ERA, FIP and strikeout rate. Last season went so poorly that I, as have many others, suggested Wacha will find himself in the bullpen to start 2016.

Apparently, however, no one has informed Wacha of his likely new role. Wacha recently told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he intends to pitch 200 innings in 2017. While this would be an admirable goal for a top-of-the-rotation starter, it is an unachievable one for an injury-risk pitcher who will be starting the season in the bullpen.

The immediate concern here is the apparent lack of communication by team management to Michael Wacha regarding his role in the upcoming season. While a message would likely not change Wacha’s preseason preparation, it might save him an unwelcome surprise come spring training. Additionally, the Cardinals already intend to take the young pitcher to arbitration. It appears that Wacha will be in for some rough news over the next couple of months.

However, rather than worry about the politicking of MLB affairs which I know very little about, I decided instead to look at how Michael Wacha got himself into this situation in the first place. Undoubtedly, if he had performed well and stayed healthy in his first few seasons, he would not be in this position. Instead, however, he has experienced declines in performance and has been hindered by shoulder injuries in every season since 2014.

Given Wacha’s health concerns, I thought declining velocity might be a factor in Wacha’s struggles. However, data compiled by Brooks Baseball shows that is not likely the case.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha velocity
Source: Brooks Baseball

Michael Wacha’s average fastball velocity in 2016 was 93.88, which is only slightly below his 2013 and 2014 velocities. However, his fastball did decline more than 1.0 MPH from 2015 to 2016, which may be cause for some concern. Additionally, he threw his cutter harder than he ever had.

St. Louis Cardinal Michael Wacha          St. Louis Cardinal Michael Wacha

His fastball location does not really look like a problem, either. While Wacha admittedly lived in the heart of the plate last year, he has been doing so in every season. Compare his 2013 fastball heatmap (above, left) with his 2016 fastball heatmap (above, right).

St. Louis Cardinal Michael Wacha          St. Louis Cardinal Michael Wacha

Additionally, his cutter location doesn’t appear to be attributing to Michael Wacha’s decline. Wacha adopted this pitch in 2014, presumably to limit his pitch count by inducing more weak contact at the expense of higher strikeout totals. His cutter location has actually gotten more focused and refined since 2014 (above, left) and was located in an almost ideal location in 2016 (above, right).

Lastly, movement does not appear to be an issue for either the cutter or fastball, either. Michael Wacha had an xMov of -3.6 and zMov of 10.8 on his fastball in 2016, both of which were near his career levels. His cutter had an xMov of 0.0 and zMov of 8.2, again both near his career average movement. Additionally, there is no noticeable trend that indicates his fastball or cutter movement has been declining.

Yet, for some reason, while hitters are posting worse numbers against Wacha’s off-speed pitches, they are putting up increasingly better numbers against his fastball. Batters’ wRC+ has jumped from 83 (17% below league average) in 2013 to 134 (34% above league average) in 2016, and has steadily increased every single season.

His cutter, however, is continuing to get the job done. Michael Wacha struggled in his first season using the pitch in 2014, and hitters posted a 133 wRC+ against the pitch. In 2016, however, hitters compiled a 72 wRC+ versus the cutter, up only slightly from their 67 wRC+ in 2015.

The main concern with Michael Wacha going forward performance-wise, then, is very obviously his fastball. Despite maintaining velocity, movement, and location, batters have hit Wacha’s fastball harder every year. There are a number of potential reasons for this. For one, Wacha may be getting behind in counts, which would allow hitters to sit on his fastball. He could, potentially, be tipping his fastball either through his mechanics or release point. He may not hide the ball well in his motion and delivery. Or, maybe, hitters have simply caught up to the pitch.

Whatever the reason, improving his fastball is critical if Michael Wacha plans to insert himself into the rotation again.

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