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Michael Wacha 2.0: What to Expect from Cardinals' Super-Rookie in 2014

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Michael Wacha 2.0: What to Expect from Cardinals' Super-Rookie in 2014
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Can Michael Wacha match his rookie success in 2014?

Even though St. Louis Cardinals rookie sensation Michael Wacha proved to be human with his struggles in Game 6 of the World Series against the Red Sox, it’s undeniable that his future is insanely bright.

Though he was first promoted the major leagues in late May, Wacha didn’t join the Cardinals' starting rotation until September. Pitching in the heat of a playoff race roughly one year after the Cardinals made him the No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 draft, the 22-year-old posted a 1.72 ERA, .198 opponent batting average and 28/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31.1 innings (five starts) over the final month of the season.

However, it wasn’t until his final regular-season start that Wacha put himself on the map as one of the game’s more promising young arms.

Taking the mound against the Washington Nationals on Sept. 24, Wacha came within one out of a no-hitter before allowing an infield single to Ryan Zimmerman. As a result of his late-season success, the right-hander was named to the Cardinals’ postseason starting rotation ahead of fellow rookie and 15-game winner Shelby Miller.

The brilliance Wacha showcased against the Nationals carried over into his start against the Pirates in Game 4 of the NLDS, with the Cardinals trailing 2-1 in the series and facing potential elimination. Suffice to say, Wacha stepped up in a big way; he allowed one run on one hit and two walks with nine strikeouts over 7.1 impressive frames. He carried a no-hit bid into the eighth inning before surrendering a solo home run to Pedro Alvarez with one out.

Moved up in the postseason rotation to start Game 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, Wacha was dominating yet again with five hits allowed, one walk and eight strikeouts over 6.2 scoreless innings. The 22-year-old outdueled Clayton Kershaw in the Cardinals' 1-0 victory.

Starting Game 6 of the NLCS as the series moved back to St. Louis, the rookie shut out the Dodgers—and Kershaw, again—for the second time in a week, allowing only two hits and a walk with five strikeouts over seven stellar innings.

Between both starts in the series, Wacha was 2-0 with 13 strikeouts in 13.2 scoreless innings. Needless to say, it wasn’t a shocker when he was named as the NLCS MVP, becoming the second rookie pitcher in baseball history to win the award.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Getting the start in Game 2 of the World Series after the Red Sox thrashed St. Louis 8-1 in the series opener, Wacha allowed two runs on three hits over six innings.

Although he wasn’t as sharp as he had been against the Dodgers in the NLCS, Wacha pitched well enough to keep the Cardinals in the game. They went on to score three unanswered runs—courtesy of two Boston errors—in the top of the seventh inning to win 4-2 and tie the series at one game apiece.

Unfortunately, both Wacha’s hot streak and the Cardinals’ season came to an end in Game 6 of the series on Wednesday night at Fenway Park. Making his fifth postseason start, the promising right-hander was shelled for six earned runs on five hits and four walks, and he was chased from the game after only 3.2 innings.

Overall, he finished his first postseason with a 4-1 record, 2.64 ERA and 33/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30.2 postseason innings (five starts).

While Wacha appears poised for a long and successful career, it’s unreasonable to think the right-hander will repeat his brilliant performance from this September and October over the course of a full major league season in 2014.

As it’s so often the case with young pitchers coming off eye-opening rookie campaigns, Wacha is likely to experience a slight regression next year. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in store for a sophomore slump.

 

Velocity: Is it for real?

Although Wacha showcased a consistent low-90s fastball during his final season at Texas A&M in the spring of 2012, velocity has never been the right-hander’s calling card.

However, that quickly changed following his insertion into the starting rotation for the stretch run of the regular season.

Michael Wacha's Average Fastball Velocity By Start (Sept. 3 - Oct. 30)
Date Opponent FB Velocity (MPH)
Sept. 3 Cincinnati Reds 93.68
Sept. 8 Pittsburgh Pirates 94.56
Sept. 14 Seattle Mariners 94.28
Sept. 19 Colorado Rockies 92.79
Sept. 24 Washington Nationals 95.79
Oct. 7 Pittsburgh Pirates 95.02
Oct. 12 Los Angeles Dodgers 95.64
Oct. 18 Los Angeles Dodgers 95.07
Oct. 24 Boston Red Sox 93.74
Oct. 30 Boston Red Sox 93.94

Brooks Baseball

After averaging 92.79 to 94.56 mph on his four-seam fastball over his first four September starts (per Brooks Baseball), Wacha’s velocity was consistently above 95 mph in each of his next four outings, including those against the Pirates and Dodgers in the postseason.

Perhaps feeling the effects of a heavy workload toward the end of the season, Wacha’s fastball velocity normalized against the Red Sox in the World Series, as he averaged 93.74 mph in Game 2 followed by 93.94 mph in Game 6.

Although the drop-off in velocity obviously could have been more extreme than roughly two miles-per-hour, it did represent a significant deviation after sitting 95-plus for most of September and early October.

Wacha should still showcase a mid-90s fastball at times moving forward, but his track record as a professional suggests a more realistic velocity range of 93 to 94 mph.

 

Room for Improvement

Even though Wacha offered an extensive glimpse of his potential as a future staff ace during the postseason, he still has a ways to go in terms of becoming a finished project in the major leagues.

Specifically, the right-hander’s curveball leaves something to be desired as it’s currently his least developed and least effective offering. Compared to the power and downhill trajectory of his lethal fastball-changeup combination, Wacha’s deuce plays too soft comparatively with an average velocity of 75.2 mph (per FanGraphs). Furthermore, the fact that he threw it only five percent of the time this season speaks to his overall lack of confidence in the pitch.

Though it’s already improved significantly since the beginning of his professional career and has proven to at least be serviceable when utilized appropriately in relation to his fastball and changeup, Wacha will need to develop a more consistent feel for the pitch to endure a full major league season at the front of the starting rotation.

 

The Inside Corner

Amazingly, Wacha was successful this season despite rarely pitching to the inner half of the plate—especially against right-handed hitters.

Michael Wacha's pitch locations vs. right-handed hitters in 2013

As you can see in the above graphic, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, the 22-year-old employed a middle-away approach when attacking same-side hitters.

However, the book is now out on Wacha, which means opposing hitters will presumably have a better idea of what to expect heading into the 2014 season.

In order to prevent or at least delay them from making adjustments at the plate next year, the right-hander will have to utilize the inside corner, even if it’s only for show. If Wacha continues to pound the middle and outer portions of the zone with the same frequency he did this season, hitters will increasingly work deeper counts and learn to sit on a specific location.

 

2014 Projection

In the wake of his overwhelming success and rapid ascent to stardom in the postseason, Wacha should open the 2014 season as the Cardinals’ No. 2 starter after Adam Wainwright.

In terms of statistics, Wacha shouldn’t be expected to be as utterly dominating as he was this past season.

Michael Wacha: 2014 Steamer Projections
Year W L IP ERA FIP BAA LOB% K% BB%
2013 4 1 64.2 2.78 2.92 .216 79.7% 25.0% 7.3%
2014* 13 11 195 3.84 3.51 .249 70.6% 21.4% 7.8%

FanGraphs

That being said, FanGraphs’ 2014 Steamer projections for the right-hander suggest he’s likely to endure a slight regression in ratio stats such as ERA, FIP, opponents’ batting average, strikeout percentage and left-on-base percentage. However, in the long run it shouldn’t detract from what should an impressive and productive sophomore campaign.

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