The 2013 postseason included some of the best young pitchers in recent memory. Alex Cobb battled Danny Salazar in the AL Wild Card game and emerged victorious. Sonny Gray twice faced perennial Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, and he outdueled him the first time. But Cardinals youngster Michael Wacha stole the show with his five postseason outings. He earned the NLCS MVP along the way by allowing zero earned runs over 13.2 innings in that round.
Postseason numbers are moot when it comes to fantasy baseball, but his highly visible performance on the big stage of October means that he won’t be slipping through the cracks on draft day. Wacha will probably be ranked similarly to players like Anibal Sanchez and Zack Greinke, so let’s spend some time deciding if he’s worth that kind of investment.
In his brief 95 inning exposure to the big leagues, Wacha has mostly leaned on a two pitch mix of fastball and change-up. Both pitches were quite excellent last season, especially his change-up, which generated whiffs at a rate similar to Cole Hamels. Wacha doesn’t have the same command and control of the pitch, but he’s set up to be a change-up artist for as long as he remains healthy. Anecdotally, Hamels is an interesting comp since he also entered the league throwing little besides a fastball and change-up. His curve ball remains a show me pitch to this day, although his cutter has become fairly useful.
Incidentally, the other pitches that Wacha has shown are a curve ball and cut fastball. The cutter only came out to play in September, and he put the pitch away for the postseason. We may see more of the pitch in 2014, but it probably needs development in the pen. Some pitchers will work on a pitch for over two years before moving it into their repertoire while others will use new pitches immediately upon discovering them. Who knows where Wacha falls in that dichotomy. The curve ball showed fairly well, although he only used it about six percent of the time during the regular season. That rate doubled in the postseason, likely to keep hitters from sitting on the fastball or change-up.
His pitch usage chart shows that he likes to get ahead with the fastball and move to the change-up. Because Wacha was new to the league, it is my suspicion that Yadier Molina presented him with a straight forward game plan. Change-up artists usually mix their pitches uniformly so as to remain as unpredictable as possible. I expect we’ll see more of that from Wacha in 2014.
If there is any particular concern with Wacha, it’s that he sprinted through the minor with a minimal amount of seasoning. He ended up throwing 180 innings in his age 22 season, thanks to his 30 inning workload in the postseason. Wacha hasn’t been around long enough to establish a regular offseason routine, but his postseason run could increase his injury risk slightly. Then again, that risk may be overwhelmed by the value of the experience he received on the postseason stage – especially with working his curve ball in more frequently.
His overall fantasy profile is quite attractive. He features good command and control, which should help him to work efficiently and pitch deep into games. While the Cardinals probably won’t be as ridiculously effective with runners in scoring position as they were this past season, he should still be in line for good run support. That means the always elusive wins stat could work in his favor. He’s also well positioned to excel in strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.
Pricing him will be a bit tricksy. Or maybe I mean to say risky. It’s hard to place a high valuation on a pitcher with such a short major league track record without at least some trepidation. But that’s what you’ll have to do to win him in the draft. Blame the postseason.
I’ve laid out a projection for above average production in three to four categories. Looking at where pitchers with similar projections went in 2013, that should make him about the 18th pitcher off the board for about $20. It’s completely reasonable if you’re less willing to call him a four category starter – Steamer and Oliver expect him to be pretty ordinary. But given the tools at his disposal, I’m more excited about his future than I am worried about regression.
As a parting thought, I recently wrote up Gray and Salazar for RotoGraphs. With both pitchers, I concluded that they may end up a bit underpriced in fantasy drafts. In terms of projected outcomes, they’re pretty similar to Wacha, even though they get there in different ways. Depending on your league, it’s possible that you could get that pair for the same price as Wacha. Then again, it’s still early in the offseason, so this is mostly guesswork.
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