Michael Wacha’s Day as Somebody Else

From Michael Wacha‘s start Wednesday night in New York, there might be something to learn about the notion of a pitcher either having it or not having it on a particular day. Conventional wisdom is that pitchers have good days and bad days, and sometimes a guy just doesn’t feel it from the start. Through three innings against the Mets, Wacha had nine strikeouts out of a possible 12. In the fourth inning, Wacha had one strikeout out of a possible eight. In other words, Wacha went from doing something historically great to struggling to find the zone, in a matter of minutes. Reality is that a pitcher can find or lose his feel between pitches. How a guy looks at one minute might not mean very much with regard to how he’ll look a few minutes later on.

But while I went into this thinking I’d write about Wacha’s strikeouts, what I stumbled upon is something even more remarkable. There are more high-strikeout games now than ever before, and while Wacha’s feat was certainly unusual, it no longer feels so insane. But how Wacha actually pitched against the Mets — he didn’t really pitch like himself. Pitch mixes vary to some degree all the time, yet Wacha all but abandoned his signature.

Before proceeding, I have to tell you, the playing conditions weren’t quite comfortable and ordinary. Around the ballpark and down on the field, there was the ever-present hint of a breeze.

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It was cold and terrible, and you can’t know exactly how that affected each player, but Wacha, for his part, didn’t seize an opportunity to make an excuse.

Wacha didn’t waste any of his wind blaming the wind.

“I don’t credit it for losing my mechanics in that inning,” said Wacha. “You have to be more mentally tough than I was tonight. Walking in two runs is just unacceptable.

“Looking at the video, mechanically, my arm was dragging. I just wasn’t in sync. I felt good through the first 30 pitches, not really sure what happened after that.”

So, here’s the deal. When Michael Wacha arrived, he was considered a two-pitch pitcher. It was intended both as a criticism and as a testament to the quality of those two pitches. Wacha also throws a curveball, and he’s started to more regularly fold in a cutter. Some time ago a National League hitter remarked that Wacha’s curve is already a quality third pitch. But Wacha, primarily, is all about his fastball and his changeup. His changeup has historically been lethal, and Dave Cameron likes to call him the new James Shields. It’s the fastball that gets Wacha in the door, and it’s the changeup that lets him be the life of the party.

Here are Michael Wacha changeups from Wednesday night:

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One of those I could only even confirm was a change by looking at the sign from Yadier Molina. It wasn’t a clear Wacha change in the PITCHf/x data.

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Nothing really remarkable up there — two changeups that went for balls. But the thing is that those were his only two changeups. Everything else was a fastball, a cutter, or a curve. Michael Wacha threw 93 pitches, and 91 times, he didn’t throw the offspeed pitch that’s made him such an elite young talent.

Not that Wacha was badly missing the change, given the ten strikeouts, but an approach like this is unusual. According to Brooks Baseball, Wacha’s previous lowest changeup total in a start was 11, and in that World Series game he lasted just 68 pitches. A year ago, he threw 27% changeups. Before Wednesday, this year, he’d thrown 23% changeups. Against the Mets, one would’ve expected something like 20-25 changeups, and instead Wacha threw two, leaning heavily on his heat.

There weren’t changeups, like usual, with two strikes. There weren’t changeups, like usual, for strikeouts. When Wacha threw the change in the first .gif above, both broadcasts made note of it, with Ron Darling remarking immediately that he didn’t like the selection. He referred to it as a wasted pitch. Both booths talked about how Wacha had left the changeup mostly unused throughout the start.

It could be that Wacha just didn’t have a good enough feel. I imagine it’s quite difficult to maintain a consistent changeup delivery in awful playing conditions. It could also be that Wacha and Molina figured the Mets couldn’t catch up to the heat. Which wouldn’t have been unreasonable.

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As a third possibility, maybe it was just Wacha trying to stay one step ahead, assuming the Mets would’ve been looking for his changeup. The threat of a pitch can be as dangerous as the pitch itself, if the threat’s perceived to be real, and everyone knows about Wacha’s change, league-wide. It gets in your head, even if you haven’t seen much of the change in a particular game. A scouting report’s a scouting report.

Whatever the case, what we know is that Wacha almost never threw his best secondary pitch. Seldom does a starting pitcher just avoid one of his best weapons like that. And for Wacha, the change is the pitch that gets swung at most often, and it’s the pitch that gets the most swings out of the zone. As a consequence of avoiding it, Wednesday saw him get a career-low swing rate, and a career-low out-of-zone swing rate. But the career-low contact rate allowed him to have success, if inconsistently, if for only four innings. Statistically, it was obviously an odd game. And visually, it was an odd game, for Michael Wacha.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Wacha’s change in the coming weeks and months. It’ll take more than one start in bad weather to convince me that something is meaningfully changing, but Wacha’s trying hard to not be a two-pitch starter, and those other pitches need to be folded in. And as we learned from Eno’s recent interview with Zack Greinke, sometimes working on other pitches can have an effect on pitches you already had. It’s probably safe to still think of Wacha as primary a two-pitch pitcher. But then, not many things in baseball are perfectly static. Sometimes a guy needs to do something different just to stay the same.



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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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SucramRenrut
Member
SucramRenrut
2 years 2 months ago

If he’s using three or four fingers to grip the change, the weather, whether from the ball beingdry/slippery or his hands being frozen and losing touch, can make the change-up very difficult to throw .

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

He should look into pine tar. I’ve heard it gives a better grip and reduces HBP.

Gaylord Perry
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Gaylord Perry
2 years 2 months ago

Who needs grip anyway?

tomsteele
Member
tomsteele
2 years 2 months ago

here is a gif of wacha losing his hat, combined with a jaunty tune: http://weavly.com/embed/OS1PpJldK2d

Benny Hill
Guest
Benny Hill
2 years 2 months ago

Ah, yes, the classic “Wacha-ty Sax.”

Bad Bill
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Bad Bill
2 years 2 months ago

GREAT article, Jeff.

It also brings up something I’ve been wondering about. How difficult would it be to add, to standard splits compilations for pitchers, something that says what the temperature was at game time, or stuff on wind, or indications whether there was rainfall during the game? Just something that gives season averages for game-time temperatures above/below some magic number (25 C, which is 77 F, might be a good starting point) would be a start. Wacha surely isn’t the first pitcher whose performance was grossly affected by ambient conditions, and it’s something that doesn’t necessarily balance out over the course of a season, or even a career.

Matthew Murphy
Member
2 years 2 months ago

I was at this game, and have never seen a pitcher go from looking dominant to helpless so quickly. It was also easily the windiest game I’ve ever been to (and a number of other fans around me said the same thing). I don’t know about the physics behind it, but having a 20mph wind gusting up to 40mph coming across the field (it was blowing from 3rd towards first most strongly, but was swirling quite a bit) could make it difficult to locate pitches, but it didn’t seem to be as much of a problem for Niese, so I believe Wacha when he says it was more his mechanics than the weather.

Also, Wacha was using his curveball more than average, and locating it pretty well. Last night, he threw 14 curves (15% of his pitches, 8.5% for career, 12% this season before last night), got five swings (two whiffs) and four called strikes.

Play-Doh's Republic
Guest
Play-Doh's Republic
2 years 2 months ago

Agreed, about the curve. Best Wacha has had since matriculating to the majors. Made David Wright look downright foolish striking out in the first inning, and I’d say that the majority of his Uncle Charlies last night would be valued as plus or plus-plus by the average scout.

Some days will of course be better than others, but I think it’s fair to say that the 22-year-old has a third pitch, and that — given his repertoire, history of durability, and extravagantly even temperament — he is already among baseball’s 10-15 aces.

BMarkham
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BMarkham
2 years 2 months ago

I agree he is pretty much a legit 3 pitch pitcher at this point.

I don’t know about top 10-15. Top 15 pitchers in WAR since 2011 goes Verlander, Kershaw, Lee, Felix, Sherzer, Sanchez, Sabathia, Price, Shields, Hamels, Fister, Lester, Gio Gonzalez, Sale, Grienke. I think it’s definitely within the realm of possibility but it’s still to early to anoint him that high.

Aaron D
Guest
Aaron D
2 years 2 months ago

I’m not disputing the accuracy of your list, nor will I claim that Wacha is necessarily among the top 15 starters today. But off the top of my head, I notice that “top 15 WAR since 2011” doesn’t include Darvish, Wainwright, Fernandez, Bumgarner, Strasburg, or Zimmerman. I guess I’m saying that I don’t think “best pitchers right now” = “most WAR over the past three seasons.”

Jon
Guest
Jon
2 years 2 months ago

I think he and Yadi knew from warmups that the change was going to be hard to throw for strikes in that wind. It’d basically look like a knuckleball and I bet Yadi doesn’t have the big knuckleball glove. It’s part of the Chris Carpenter training that he makes no excuses, just has to do the best with what he has that day. Changeup will be back next time out in StL.

Play-Doh's Republic
Guest
Play-Doh's Republic
2 years 2 months ago

I concur, Jon. And also, I don’t know if you saw the game, but Wacha was examined on the bench by team doctors after the 3rd inning…an inning during which he threw 7 or 8 yakker curveballs. The speculation from the StL broadcast team was that perhaps a blister was starting to form, as a result of the unusually heavy dose of said pitch in the 3rd. (Seems to me that Wacha in fact threw just a single curve in the 4th inning, when his control truly fell apart. The “blister hypothesis” would fit both the lack of 4th-inning curves and general absence of Wacha’s usual command.)

racehorse1
Guest
racehorse1
2 years 2 months ago

The Chris carpenter training, that’s a good one. What is that, be on the disabled list half your career, and act like a punk towards your opponents?

Bustacard
Guest
Bustacard
2 years 2 months ago

And then make those who call you a punk look foolish – all the while cussing like a sailor.

Bustacard
Guest
Bustacard
2 years 2 months ago

In all fairness though, if I weren’t a Cards fan I would probably hate Chris Carpenter.

John Axford's Mustache
Guest
John Axford's Mustache
2 years 2 months ago

Definitely not a Cardinals fan, and I never liked Carp, but there is no denying that he has had a major positive impact on the other pitchers there in StL, starting with Adam Wainwright. Everyone speaks about the mentality he took to the field and his mentorship of other pitchers. You don’t have to like him, but you gotta at least respect the things he has done for that team and their pitching.

E-Dub
Guest
E-Dub
2 years 2 months ago

You forgot show up your teammates when they commit a fielding gaffe behind you. I admired the ability and the competitiveness, but Carp had some major deficiencies of sportsmanship and comportment.

MikePhoenix
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MikePhoenix
2 years 2 months ago

Prediction: Wacha leaves baseball with two Cy Young awards.

antagonist
Guest
antagonist
2 years 2 months ago

Why? What’s going to happen to Jose Fernandez?

Aaron D
Guest
Aaron D
2 years 2 months ago

or kershaw

Ben Suissa
Member
Ben Suissa
2 years 2 months ago

The National League Texas Chainsaw Massacre (except St Louis)

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
2 years 2 months ago

Fernandez will be an ex-Marlin in 4 1/2 years when Loria’s going through another “restructuring.”

That Guy
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That Guy
2 years 2 months ago

Great article as usual, Jeff. But technically it’s inaccurate to say “nine strikeouts out of a possible 12.” Due to dropped third strikes, the maximum number of K’s in any given inning is infinite.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter
2 years 2 months ago

Isn’t he saying that he struck out 9 of the first 12 batters, covering the first three innings? Even with a dropped third strike, you can’t strike out the same person in the same at bat more than once.

Gribo
Guest
Gribo
2 years 2 months ago

Obviously nthe author never pitched above little league level. Pitching in the wind is a gift. Period. Breaking balls break much more. Fastballs move and so does everything else. The batters are uncomfortable, etc. Acting like he earned the strikeouts while the wind was also to blame for his downfall is ludicrous.

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