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.
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:
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.
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.
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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