Michael Wacha as a Reliever as a Starter

If the Cardinals are to earn a berth in the World Series Friday night, they’ll have to do so opposing a team starting Clayton Kershaw, presumably baseball’s best starter. Taking the mound for the Cardinals will be a still-mostly-unproven rookie in Michael Wacha, and on the face of it, that puts the Cardinals at a considerable disadvantage. But, a few things are working in their favor. One, the Cardinals are at home, and the home-field advantage is undeniable, even if it’s almost impossible to observe in the moment. Two, Wacha and the Cardinals just beat Kershaw and the Dodgers earlier in this very series, by a 1-0 final. So nothing here is impossible. And three, some people figure that by this point in the season, pitchers are pitching on fumes. Wacha, however, only seems to be getting stronger. The gap between Kershaw and Wacha exists and is big, but right now it’s probably not as big as you might’ve thought.

There’s something to be said for postseason adrenaline. There’s something to be said for Wacha still finding his way as a starter in the bigs. And there’s something to be said for the way Wacha has been handled this year, as the Cardinals didn’t want a repeat of the Strasburg Shutdown in 2012. The Cardinals anticipated the future, they wanted to have Wacha available down the stretch, so they gave him some breathers over the course of the summer. As a result, Wacha’s stabilizing a late-season rotation that’s missing Shelby Miller. He’s not just throwing his pitches — he’s throwing his pitches better.

Wacha’s first four major-league appearances were as a starter. After that, he shifted to the bullpen for a few weeks, then he returned to the rotation, making five starts in September and with this being his third start in October. So we have information for Wacha occupying two roles, and we have information on season progression. The last three times Wacha has taken the mound in particular, he’s been dominant, and some of the data underneath reveals an interesting pattern. The following information came from Brooks Baseball, and I trust them to get this stuff right. Wacha is by no means wearing down. Wacha’s doing pretty much the exact opposite.

Here are Wacha’s average pitch velocities as a reliever:

Fastball: 95.5 miles per hour
Changeup: 86.8
Curveball: 76.7

For whatever it’s worth, he threw hardly any curves out of the bullpen, but there you go. Now, here are Wacha’s average pitch velocities over his first eight big-league starts:

Fastball: 93.6 miles per hour
Changeup: 85.9
Curveball: 75.6

There’s nothing in there you wouldn’t expect. We’ve long understood that guys throw harder out of the bullpen than when starting, because as a reliever you don’t have to know how to pace yourself. Starters have a certain amount of energy they distribute over 100 pitches or so. Relievers have a certain amount of energy they distribute over 10 or 15 or 20. It’s normal to lose one or two ticks in a longer stint, and this goes a long way toward explaining why relievers also post better numbers.

Finally, here are Wacha’s average pitch velocities from his last three starts, beginning September 24:

Fastball: 95.5 miles per hour
Changeup: 88.4
Curveball: 77.3

In the first of those three starts, Wacha carried a no-hitter until there were two out in the ninth. In the second, he carried a no-hitter until there was one out in the eighth. In the third, he shut out the Dodgers for nearly seven innings. Wacha’s pitching the best he has all year, and driving that, at least in large part, is that he’s throwing as a starter as if he’s a reliever. His fastball velocity is where it was out of the bullpen. His secondary pitches are even faster. Wacha’s beyond 160 innings on the year — there was talk the Cardinals didn’t want him to get past 150 — but here there aren’t any signs that he’s wearing down. Very much the opposite of that, either because Wacha is pumped up, or he’s learned some things over the summer, or both or more than that. Again, someone else might have a good explanation. I just have the data, and it’s the data that helps us project performance.

It’s probably also worth noting that Wacha threw 13 curves the last time out, and 14 curves the time before that. In no other appearance had he thrown more than nine, so he could be developing increased confidence in his breaking ball. But then, in that start September 24, the curve got thrown just three times, so if that’s a factor, it’s a secondary one. The Dodgers, Friday night, should be aware of Wacha’s curve, but more importantly they should be prepared for a hard thrower. A guy who’s throwing harder is going to perform better, and so Wacha right now seems to be a step above how people thought of him even last month. He’s closer to Kershaw, if you will, even if he’s still not that close. Every bit matters.

The Cardinals wanted to avoid a Strasburg situation, so they planned ahead to have Wacha available late, and now they’re getting all the benefits. In that sense, this is just another example of the Cardinals getting something right, where another organization might’ve gone wrong. I am open to the argument that there’s a downside to this. Wacha’s past his soft innings limit, and he’s throwing as hard as he has all season. Maybe that’ll be bad for him in the long-term — maybe his arm is in a weakened state, and this is increasing his injury risk. I have no idea and I don’t care to speculate, but it’s not altogether unreasonable. There’s a lot we don’t know and Wacha’s putting a lot of strain on his body.

But what the Cardinals care about right now is winning, and ideally winning this Friday night so they can advance to another World Series. They’ll be up against it, having to face baseball’s best starter, but they’ll be going with a pretty good starter of their own, a starter who looks as strong as he ever has. Michael Wacha, ever so briefly, was a dominant reliever. These days he looks like a dominant starter throwing like a reliever. Let it not be advanced that Game 6 is a mismatch.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Mister
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Mister
2 years 11 months ago

Rookie starters have a pretty measurable advantage facing a team for the 1st time, right? So, since game 2 was the first time the Dodgers faced Wacha, they ought to be expected to do better the 2nd time around?

fisher
Guest
fisher
2 years 11 months ago

Can’t remember where I saw it, but Wacha faced four teams twice in 2013, and none of them really had an advantage over the first outing.

Will.i.am.pei.freely
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Will.i.am.pei.freely
2 years 11 months ago

Good article, Jeff. Regarding Wacha’s inning limits, perhaps he’s both over and not over. That is, maybe the (supposed) soft limit of 150 innings was only intended to apply to his regular season — i.e., if he’s kept <150 through September, you can basically push him as hard as reasonably required in October.

In general, with a pair of starts going 112 pitches and no others exceeding 105, I'd say Wacha's team and manager have generally been quite responsible in their workload management.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 11 months ago

Throwing changes and curves harder isn’t a good thing, but I guess it could be indicative of him pressing. The book on him coming into the season was a fastball-change pitcher with a dubious curve, so not trusting it likely explains the infrequency.

Eric Cioe
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Eric Cioe
2 years 11 months ago

The idea is to mask these pitches within a fastball. If the fastball gets harder, these pitches have to get harder as well to retain their deception. That’s why the best changeups tend to be 10% slower than the fastball, not any fixed mph amount. If the differential between the change and fastball is too great, hitters can read them better.

Think about Verlander in 2011, when he’d cruise at 92 and gear up to 98. When cruising, his changeup was about 84. But when he amped up his fastball, his changeup could come in as hard as 90 or so. Again, it’s the differential that counts, not the raw velocity.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 11 months ago

Uhm … no, that’s COMPLETELY wrong. The deception comes from maintaining the same throwing motion, but you want the biggest disparity between the fastball and change. If the arm looks the same but there is a huge difference in speed, it’s much harder to hit.

NS
Guest
NS
2 years 11 months ago

No, you are wrong about this.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 11 months ago

And according to this, NS, you’re wrong: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/anatomy-of-a-pitch-change-up/ The reason you see a decline in effectiveness beyond ~15mph is that it’s extremely hard to do without altering the throwing motion and/or release point. That is what tips off the batter, not the incoming speed.

Clarence in Austin TX
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Clarence in Austin TX
2 years 11 months ago

B-Pro article on change ups found that both faster and slower change ups can be effective; the difference is that “slower,” i.e., bigger gaps with FB velocity, creates more whiffs, and “faster,” less difference in velocity, results in more weak groundball outs.
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21675

Lanidrac
Guest
Lanidrac
2 years 11 months ago

Either way still indicates that Wacha should be throwing harder change-ups with a harder fastball.

Hirohitahomerun already
Guest
2 years 11 months ago

I wish for hex based reasons that you’d titled this “Michael Wacha’s Successful Readjustment”

MDL
Member
MDL
2 years 11 months ago

0x42757420 0x74686520 0x63757272 0x656e7420 0x7469746c 0x65206973 0x206d6f72 0x6520696e 0x74657265 0x7374696e 0x672e2020

79469c732
Guest
79469c732
2 years 11 months ago

That’s just what I was thinking!

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 11 months ago

Wow, what a pitcher. It’s scary to think about the Cardinals having these guys for years to come.

PackBob
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PackBob
2 years 11 months ago

Thanks for presenting the data and sticking to the data.

Cybo
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Cybo
2 years 11 months ago

I’m curious as to what his ranking will look like in 2014.

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
2 years 11 months ago

Really fucking high.

Adrastus Perkins
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Adrastus Perkins
2 years 11 months ago

Good stuff.

Makes you wonder why they didn’t take a similar approach with Shelby Miller. Kind of pointless to have him on the postseason roster if they’re not going to use him.

Felix
Guest
Felix
2 years 11 months ago

Because they had to win a competitive division and avoid the WC game? Injuries to Garcia/Carpenter/Gast and ineffectiveness by Westbrook really depleted the Cards’ rotational depth.

MLB Rainmaker
Member
Member
MLB Rainmaker
2 years 11 months ago

That’s a pretty aggressive leap to use an article from September to say the Cardinals “planned ahead”, with respect to their young arms.

I watched Wacha closely this season and it didn’t look like there was any plan with him that the Cards actually stuck to — he came up as a starter (when they had no one else left), then went back down as a starter (vs. reliever), then came back up as a starter, then finally in August switched to a reliever — at which point Moz said he would stay a “high-leverage” reliever for the stretch run — only to come back as a starter when the wheels officially fell of Westbrook, which no minors stint to stretch back out. Wacha was as haphazardly handled as he possibly could have been.

In regards to Wacha still pitching today, the reality is that STL is choosing to blow off consensus thinking around innings limits and ride Wacha’s hot streak — they didn’t “out-smart” the system for managing young arms by any means, they are just ignoring it, a la the Dusty Baker school for young pitchers. Personally, I think Wacha’s a special pitcher that will be fine, and don’t buy into the innings limits necessarily, but there’s no arguing that STL is gambling here and straying from the norm in terms of workload for a guy in his first MLB season.

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
2 years 11 months ago

On re-reading this, I think you missed something important. Wacha isn’t developing improved confidence in his curve ball, Molina is, and that’s a rather huge statement. Pretty much all of the young Cardinals pitchers have been saying “Yadi just puts down the fingers to tell me what to throw, and I throw it” all season. This is borne out by observation: they never, never shake him off. And Molina isn’t just a cannon arm behind the plate; like any decent major-league catcher, he’s also a critic of pitching, like a connoisseur of fine wine, and he will call for a pitcher’s secondary pitches if and only if he thinks they’re ready. His vote of confidence in the curve the second time around has to be considered huge.

Michael
Guest
Michael
2 years 11 months ago

In regard to the innings limit, no columnist wants to talk about it but the truth is the Cardianls found themselves in the desparate spot of needing another strong starter and Wacha was fitting the bill. You’ve heard of teams trying to win it all this year and worry about next year next year: this is the individual equivalent of that.
The innings limits for Shelby Miller & Michael Wacha, as published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in early September, were 180 for Miller & 150 for Wacha. In a chat with Derrick Goold, I mentioned these limits & Goold told me this disagreed with what the organization told him were the innings left for Wacha. He did not mention an innings limit for Wacha in the chat but he referred me to check the reporting in the last few weeks on the subject. I did and the only article I found was the “save the pitchers plan” which lists Miller at 180 & Wacha at 150.
Shortly after the NLCS ended, a few columns about the rise of Michael Wacha suggested that Wacha’s innings limit was 170, though they did not cite their source for the number and failed to mention that Wacha was now at this higher number the columnists offered. If the Cardinals need Wacha now and they think he is strong enough to push through at the future risks which necessitated an innings limit in the first place, then so be it. I just think some outlets are choosing to pretend this isn’t the case as though there is no risk on Wacha or no reason to take blame if there is a future injury related to overuse now.

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