Michael Wacha and Exceeding Expectations

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Chris Moran is a second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also an assistant coach with the baseball team at Washington University. He graduated from Wheaton College, where he wore the tools of ignorance for the baseball team. Follow him on twitter @hangingslurves.

St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha picked up right where he left off in 2013. He carved up the Cincinnati Reds, allowing just three hits and one walk in 6.2 shutout innings. Wacha struck out seven of the 26 hitters he faced. His fastball hummed in at an average of 95 miles per hour, topping out at 98, and he generated 14 swings and misses between that and his changeup, which was as good as ever. In addition, Wacha utilized his curveball more frequently than in outings past.

After a thrilling five game stretch between the end of the 2013 regular season and the postseason where Wacha allowed just 12 hits and 3 runs in 35.2 innings with 37 strikeouts, expectations have been sky-high for the 22 year-old as he heads into his first full big league season.

People weren’t always so high on Wacha. The big right-hander had a solid three year career at Texas A&M. Going into the 2012 MLB Draft, reports were mixed on Wacha, with some prospect writers saying that he had a chance at being a No. 3 starter, and others saying he had ace potential. Seven pitchers were selected before Wacha on draft day. One of them, Mark Appel, did not sign and was selected first overall the next year. Of the remaining six, three of them, Kevin Gausman, Kyle Zimmer, and Andrew Heaney are all big league ready or very close to that. Max Fried and Lucas Giolito, high school selections, have considerable promise. Though, Fried had the mildly bothersome control issues you would expect from a teenager, and Giolito underwent Tommy John surgery, from which he seems to be making a good recovery. Nick Travieso, another high school pick, has perhaps lowered expectations at this point.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 or so they say, and while several of the 18 teams that drafted before the Cardinals probably wish they had Wacha right now, it’s entirely plausible that the Cardinals themselves would have selected someone else if they had the chance. After all, the Los Angeles Angels drafted Randal Grichuk before snagging Mike Trout with the 25th overall pick back in 2009.

Some players get overlooked for whatever reason, and some players make significant improvements after being drafted. In Wacha’s case, it’s probably some of each. Since becoming pro, Wacha has seen a velocity uptick, with his fastball regularly sitting in the mid 90s, as opposed to the low 90s reports on him in college. Velocity matters, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. While some pitchers (i.e. Felix Hernandez) have continued to have success in the face of diminishing fastball velocity, there’s a strong correlation between fastball velocity and strikeout rate. In the postseason, Wacha’s heater averaged 94.7 miles per hour.

Furthermore, Wacha’s heavy reliance on a two-pitch mix in college probably allowed him to fall to the 19th overall slot. Talent evaluators and coaches, and well just about everybody loves breaking pitches, and Wacha relies mainly on a fastball and changeup mix. Though his curveball has made some progress, it’s more of an average or show-me pitch. Ninety percent of the time he’ll throw either a fastball or a changeup.

And that’s not a bad thing. Despite the entirely reasonable preference for pitchers with a deeper repertoire, there are plenty of hurlers who have been very successful with a two-pitch mix. Ervin Santana has been a solid and at times spectacular (okay, at times horrible as well) major league starter with a fastball and slider. Tom Glavine made a Hall of Fame career out of a fastball and changeup, Ben Sheets could dominate with a fastball and curve, and David Wells was very similar. You get the point, if those two pitches are both well above-average, that’s enough. Wacha came into the draft with two plus pitches, and giving his fastball and changeup the plus-plus tag seems appropriate now.

Also, if that pitcher has just two dependable offerings, better that the secondary offering be a changeup than anything else. In his short career, Wacha has a barely discernible platoon split, with a 3.23 xFIP against left-handed hitters and a 3.28 xFIP against right-handed hitters. The changeup, much more so than a slider, provides a good weapon against opposite-handed hitters. It’s one of the easier pitches on the arm to boot, as pronating the wrist creates much less stress than snapping off a breaking ball. Lastly, changeups have a lower in-play batting average than other pitches.

Sure, the break on a slider might be more impressive, and seeing a hitter flail at a big curve gets every baseball fan going. However, it’s probably better to have a pitcher with a good changeup. Yes, Michael Wacha has improved in the two years since the Cardinals drafted him, and hindsight always makes some teams look good and others look not so good. But, to some extent, the other 18 teams should have appreciated how good Wacha could be even with his limited repertoire.