Michael Wacha Thinks Throwing Inside is Stupid

Note: I don’t actually know if Michael Wacha thinks that. The headline is hyperbolic in nature, designed to convey the ideas from the article in a way that make you want to read said article. Michael Wacha might think pitching inside is really smart. I haven’t asked him. I doubt it, though.

Yesterday, with his team facing elimination, Michael Wacha shut down the Pirates. Not just in a good October performance kind of way, but in a you-can’t-hit-this-so-stop-trying kind of way. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and left having only allowed Pedro Alvarez to deposit one into the seats. For the day, he allowed a BABIP of .000, and it didn’t look like great defense being played behind him. It was just Michael Wacha dominating a pretty solid offense.

But perhaps the most amazing part is he did it with half the strike zone. The outer half, specifically. Michael Wacha decided that he simply didn’t have any interest in throwing to the inner half of the plate, and if the Pirates were going to hit him, they were going to have to do it by getting extension and driving a ball the other way.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here are the Zone Profiles from Wacha’s start yesterday. The first image is against right-handed hitters, the second one is against lefties.

WachavsRHB

WachavsLHB

These are from the catcher’s perspective, so the left hand of the RHB chart represents inside pitches, and the right hand of the LHB chart represents the same. Notice all the blue.

The nice thing about Brooks’ chart is that it gives us the actual counts, not just the visual representation. So, we can look at that chart and turn it into actual numbers. Here’s how his locations break down by handedness.

Split Pitches Inside Percentage Inside Balls Inside Strikes
RHBs 59 6 10% 5 1
LHBs 37 8 22% 7 1

Michael Wacha threw 96 pitches yesterday, and exactly two of them were on the inside half of the plate and within the borders of the strike zone. 12 times, he went inside and either placed it too high, too low, or too far inside, essentially forcing hitters looking for a middle-in pitch to chase something out of the zone. The rest of the game was almost exclusively away, away, away.

There’s a school of thought that says you have to pitch inside a fair amount to keep batters honest. If you just pound the outer half of the zone, they’ll start to hang over the plate, and then they’ll just start crushing those outside pitches like they’re middle-middle fastballs. The theory is that you have to back a guy off to get him to respect that a pitch may come in on his hands, or at some other part of his body. There’s probably something to it, but it also seems like it’s wildly overstated.

Michael Wacha has been in the big leagues for a few months. Counting yesterday’s start, he’s faced 285 batters in MLB, and he hasn’t hit a single one. And this pitching outside thing is hardly new for him. For instance, here are his zone profiles for the entire season:

WachavsRHBs2013

WachavsLHBsSeason

It isn’t quite as extreme as it was yesterday, but there’s still a lot of blue on those charts, especially the Vs LHB chart. Michael Wacha just doesn’t pitch left-handed hitters on the inside half of the plate. He just pounds them on the outer half, and has since he got called up to the big leagues. Left-handed batters, during the regular season, hit .195/.254/.239 against Wacha. Yesterday, they went 1-10 with three strikeouts, so even though the one hit was a home run, they went .100/.100/.400 against him.

Wacha is right-handed, and he has dominated left-handed hitters since getting to the big leagues. And he’s done it with half the plate. He hasn’t kept guys honest. He hasn’t put one in a lefty’s back just to send a message. His plan has been to stay away from left-handers and force them to hit his ridiculous change-up as it dives away from them. They’ve tried, and they’ve failed.

Against lefties, Michael Wacha is a two pitch guy who uses half the plate. It’s fastball/change, and it’s always on the outer half. There’s not a lot of game theory here. This isn’t deception or trickery. This is a pitcher with two plus pitches and fantastic command regularly putting the ball in unhittable spots. Opposing hitters know what Wacha is going to do to them, and yet they still can’t hit it.

That’s dominance. And that’s probably why Michael Wacha is in the Cardinals rotation for the playoffs. He might not have a flashy breaking ball, but his command of two terrific pitches gives him a huge advantage. And he’s smart enough to know exactly how to use those pitches.

Wacha seems content to let everyone else in baseball man up and challenge hitters inside. He’ll just keep getting hitters out instead.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

48 Responses to “Michael Wacha Thinks Throwing Inside is Stupid”

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  1. chuckb says:

    I can tell you that if he was pitching for the Cardinals, it most certainly was not great defense being played behind him. On that team, the only person who plays great defense does it in front of him.

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  2. johnorpheus says:

    One thing to note: Despite TBS’s announcers repeated misclassifications of his curve as a change up, Wacha actually appeared to use the curve effectively as more than just a show me pitch several times to righties. Wacha is often characterized as just a two pitch guy, but his curve is more frequently used then one would think.

    As a side, it seems like yesterday’s announcers were just reading from a pre-game scrip on Wacha’s pitches and not actually, you know, watching the velocity and movement of his pitches.

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    • Evan says:

      The curveballs weren’t all that great. But all of them were thrown outside and maybe a little low. IE, unhittable yet enticing. His stuff was electric last night.

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    • E-Dub says:

      Exactly my impression. I couldn’t believe the seventh inning graphic asserting that he’d thrown only FB/change to that point in the game. Agreed on “the script” as well. “Alvarez won’t see many FBs today” followed by a swinging strikeout on two FBs located away. Consistent reference to his curve as a change, despite the fact that it was thrown at 77/78 and was clearly defined from his change. That mistake was understandable at A&M where he didn’t have much of a curve and the change featured a similar shape, but not now.

      I guess this is what we should expect of the Dream Team of Stockton and Brenly.

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    • stan says:

      The Post Dispatch noted today that he threw as many curveballs as change-ups. It was apparent on the broadcast that the announcers couldn’t tell the difference, which is kind of weird because it was very apparent.

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  3. chuckb says:

    Great stuff. I’ve noticed a lot of this in the playoff games, though maybe we’re just seeing more accurate pitchers or I’m just noticing it more than during the regular season. I’d love to see some kind of breakdown comparing how pitchers pitch in the postseason — away vs. inside — against how they pitch in the regular season. I wonder if there’s a difference and, if so, why?

    It seems like most pitchers try to stay away with nearly everything in the postseason. If that’s true, and it works, why don’t they do it in the regular season? Or do they try but there are too many inaccurate pitchers who aren’t able to do it?

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  4. Michael says:

    As always, Dave, a very good article on an amazingly interesting pitcher. For his age and experience he seems to know exactly what (and where) his strengths are, and you’re right, they look just helpless up there against his changeup.
    I would really love to see him pitch again very soon, but, rooting for the Buccos, I’m afraid we just can’t allow that to happen ;-)

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  5. DD says:

    Would love to see a similar pitcher in Cole Hamels try this out – two plus pitches in his 91-94 FB and world class change.

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  6. Aaron Murray says:

    Are you sure he’s not just Rafael Betancourt?

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  7. Michael Cave says:

    Be interesting to see how this breakdown compares to other righty starters

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  8. Alex says:

    Is there any data that shows that RHB hit outside pitches better, or vice-versa, or that LHB and RHB hit the same at all zones? I tend to hear that LHB like low, inside fastballs and I wonder if there is any truth to it.

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    • Swfcdan says:

      Of course lefties like it down and in, because a lot of them have the same kinda swing they like to golf it out. Wacha pitching away to lefties makes perfect sense, why hasnt this been done so significantly before!

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      • BMarkham says:

        Why of course though? Why would lefties like low inside more than righties? Growing up I played a lot of competitive baseball. My dad loved baseball and when I was young he taught me to throw RH and hit LH, so I could play any position but also have an advantage hitting. Being that I was born in 87 I grew up trying to imitate Griffey and Thome’s beautiful left handed swings. Edmonds was another one I watched. I liked low inside pitches (The few home runs I hit as a kid were off low inside pitches) but I was also always taught to go with the ball and hit to all fields.

        But it’s always been weird to me that lefties predominately like the low inside pitch so much more than righties. Why would there be any difference? Does it have to do with the fact that most of the time your facing a RH pitcher and you see it differently? Or because the ball’s coming at a different angle when a RH throws low and inside to a LH compared to a RH hitter? Might that also be a contributing factor to why LH hitters have trouble hitting LH pitching? Seems like a fangraphs article is needed on this

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        • kamikaze80 says:

          i think it has a lot to do with most camera angles being slightly towards the 3B side. makes it look like LHBs golf it out on low+inside pitches.

          try finding some animated gifs of RHBs hitting low+inside pitches and mirroring them. i’d guess they’d look pretty similar to the LHBs.

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        • martimeryard says:

          I’d say it’s easier to swing low-in for lefties because their body needs to turn that direction anyway in order to run to first. They can finish their swing and more naturally start running to first than a right-handed hitter could do.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          @BMarkahm, I think you are onto something when you talk about how left handed batters get “that angle” from a low and inside from a right handed pitchers. Right Handed Batters get the same type of pitch from left handed pitchers and golf them as well (See Johnny Gomes and Mike Napoli at Fenway Park). Besides Rickey Henderson most natural lefthanders do not train themselves to bat right handed. I’m naturally right handed and when I stand up and Swing at the air right handed it feels more natural to swing on more of a natural plane over the plate. When I swing left handed my right arm seems to want to pull my swing through the zone creating more power on an upper cut “golf type swing. I’m just theorizing but I think when one’s naturally stronger arm is the front arm, as a right handed fielding, left handed batting player generally is it leads to more “golf shots.” A Fangraphs article on this would be great.

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        • Juan says:

          Growing up in the 60′s, I once saw the Chi-Sox
          lefty hitter Pete Ward bat against lefty
          Det-Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich (in Detroit).
          Pete hit two towering homers into the right
          field upper deck. Both pitches appeared to be
          two side arm somewhat low fastballs that Pete
          caught at just the right angle. I said WOW!
          I can’t remember too many games in which a
          lefty hitter crushed two homers against a lefty
          pitcher, outside of Willie McCovey. There
          really wasn’t a good way to pitch to McCovey
          in his prime, unless you threw it behind him!

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  9. semperty says:

    What do you guys see his ceiling as being?

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    • KJOK says:

      In early September he gave the Pirates 1 infield hit into 7 innings.

      In his last start of the season he threw a no-hitter for 8 2/3 innings.

      In his first playoff start he gave up 1 hit.

      So, what does that suggest?

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      • Swfcdan says:

        Even since he’s rejoined the roation he’s given up 6 runs in 36 innings (and 4 of those were at Coors). He’s been redonkulous.

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      • Jason B says:

        What does it suggest? Ummm…I dunno, it suggests he will give up like 5 hits a month in perpetuity? That sounds like a useful guy to have.

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    • matt_the_hat says:

      Chris Carpenter

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    • BMarkham says:

      I think its silly to say his ceiling is anything but an ace. Not saying he’ll definitely reach that ceiling he for sure has the ability, especially if he works on that curveball in the offseason. I’m a Cardinals fan so comparing him to other Cardinals rookies this year (there’s been a lot) Miller, Rosenthal, and Martinez all have great stuff, but what puts Wacha ahead of them is his command. Sometimes when Miller is pitching you don’t know where the ball is going to end up, could be way off the plate or right over the middle of it. Wacha has been great (for a rookie, and especially for someone drafted a year and half ago) at painting the corners or being just off the corners. After he was called up to the Majors for a second time this year his first couple starts showed he was missing the corners a lot. He was just off the plate and falling behind in counts or failing to put guys away. I felt like if he could get his pitches just a smidge closer to the plate he could be really effective. That being said, I didn’t see him throwing two near no-hitters!

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      • Juan says:

        We’ll be better able to judge his ceiling after the
        hitters make their adjustments next season. It will
        be interesting to see how Wacha reacts. However, I
        think he’s already expecting that, and will change
        nothing until the hitters start figuring him out.
        After all, the Cardinals took him in the first
        round because of his talent track record. The
        Cardinals are lucky to have Wacha, Miller, Kelly,
        and Martinez!They need to start bringing up more of
        their offense talent, before their current star
        position players start aging.

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  10. pogotheostrich says:

    How much credit goes to Wacha and how much goes to Molina? No slight to Wacha as he was pitching great but we are talking about approach right? I’m sure Wacha has his say but Molina and the pitching coach deserve some credit too.

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  11. Swfcdan says:

    It always confused me initially how we see the heat charts from the catchers view. I thought initially you had it totally backwards and he only threw inside from looking at the chart.

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  12. Mike Trout Fishing In America Ferrera says:

    Less than a month ago, BP’s Jason Cole stated that Wacha was “currently a #4 starter, and should end up as a #3.” Think maybe he’d like to amend that?

    It’s all about the velocity for Wacha; according to the Brooksbaseball numbers, Wacha has 3 MLB starts with a 4-seamer averaging 95, Wacha pitched a pair of near no-nos. Very promising kid (exactly one year older than Jose Fernandez).

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    • Felonius_Monk says:

      I never got the “back of the rotation” starter thing with Wacha. Always seemed like echo chamber BS. This is a 6 foot 6 inch guy with a mid-90s fastball, great control, and a wipeout changeup, and that’s pretty much the guy he was coming out of college. I think he’s always been destined to be above-average, with a shot at being really, really good if he could work the curveball out.

      Wouldn’t surprise me to see him putting up some 4-5 WAR seasons in the not too distant future.

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      • E-Dub says:

        The FB velo has ticked up since college, and the pitch features better movement. He had command and the change, but he was more 92-94 touching 96/97 than sitting 95. That and the rapid progression of the curve (which was the best I’ve ever seen it) are big steps forward since turning pro.

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        • Chris Gazelle says:

          I believe scouts actually had him sitting low 90s and topping out at 95. And despite that, he was considered a steal at 18th overall.

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  13. Mike Trout Fishing In America Ferrera says:

    Sorry about that incoherence; last post got oddly truncated right in the middle.

    Wacha has 3 low-velocity MLB starts (<93 MPH avg. on 4-seamer), and he allowed a nightmarish 27 hits in 15 innings. In 5 mid-velocity outings (93-95 avg) however, he permitted just 16 hits in 30 innings (5 ER). And finally, in his pair of starts with a 95+ average on the 4-seamer, he's taken a no-no into the 8th inning.

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  14. quick says:

    He looks like a classic away, away, away pitcher–like Maddux and Glavine, but with more giddyup. So, hitters must see him more and learn not to swing at his non-strikes, which are numerous.

    Look, pitchers want hitters to swing at balls, and hitters must learn to read a pitcher well enough to avoid it. How long this kid can keep the hitters from laying off the outside, non-strike pitches will determine how good he can be, and for how long.

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  15. Tim says:

    It’s always been pretty clear that if you can peg the lower outside corner no one will be able to hit it. It’s just most pitchers can’t do that consistently.

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  16. ALEastbound says:

    What would Trevor Bauer do?

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  17. mwlyons52 says:

    Great stuff Dave, makes me wonder if Trevor Rosenthal doesn’t take a similar approach. I know his slash line vs. Lefties has been awesome since he’s been in the majors, and it would be interesting to see if the Cardinal’s are suggesting that their dominant righties should pitch on the outer half to lefties.

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  18. Cardinals645 says:

    Michael Wacha is primarily a fastball/changeup guy, but he does throw a curveball occasionally, and threw it several times yesterday (though it is still very much his 3rd pitch).

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  19. Ryan S says:

    Editors Note: Pedro’s HR was actually deposited in the river.

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  20. Colin says:

    i have not seen many hitters who seem capable of adjusting to someone throwing all outside pitches. Most appear stuck in their routines so much so that it wouldn’t induce a change. Most don’t have the range to hurt pitchers who throw outer half all the time. From the eyeball test alone it seems like good strategy to me.

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  21. CalipariFan506 says:

    The Pirates have struggled all season against pitchers using the outside third of the plate. Go watch tape of a few Mike Leake gems against Pittsburgh and it is easy to see where Molina got his game plan.

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