What to Expect from Michael Wacha's Much-Hyped Sophomore Season

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What to Expect from Michael Wacha's Much-Hyped Sophomore Season
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He’s back.

On Wednesday night, Michael Wacha made his highly anticipated season debut against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, and the 22-year-old did not disappoint. 

After a two-hour, 55-minute rain delay, he picked up where he left off last October and appropriately opened his sophomore effort with a gem, allowing just three hits and a walk in 6.2 scoreless innings while tallying seven strikeouts.

The outing furthered Wacha’s career success against the Reds; he’s now thrown 16.2 scoreless innings with 17 strikeouts against them dating back to last season.

His stellar performance was overshadowed by the St. Louis Cardinals’ struggles with runners in scoring position and Cincinnati’s eventual walk-off 1-0 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning. However, the right-hander still made it abundantly clear that he’s poised for greatness this season and beyond.

 

Velocity

Wacha averaged 92.79 to 94.56 mph on his four-seam fastball last season during his first four September starts, per Brooks Baseball, but was consistently above 95 mph in each of his next four outings, including those against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers in the postseason.

Perhaps feeling the effects of a heavy workload toward the end of the season, his fastball velocity normalized against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. He averaged 93.74 mph in Game 2, followed by 93.94 mph in Game 6.

Elsa/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, Wacha sat 94 to 96 with his heater during the first three innings and showed his usual plus command of the pitch over the course of the game. He topped out at 97 mph in the first inning against Jay Bruce and again facing Brandon Phillips in the fourth.

Specifically, Wacha did an excellent job changing hitters' eye levels, both horizontally and vertically, and forcing them to expand their zones early in the game. As a result, his elite changeup and flourishing breaking ball were all the more effective, though his command wasn't particularly sharp on either.

Wacha’s ability to maintain velocity was noteworthy, especially in his first start of the season. In his final two frames, he was still sitting comfortably in the 92-94 mph range, but his fatigue had already manifested in the form of too many pitches left up in the zone.

 

Curveball

Everyone who has watched Wacha during his brief professional career knows his bread and butter is his changeup. But after logging 64.2 innings last year during the regular season and another 30.2 in the playoffs, there is enough tape on him. 

With ample scouting reports and video to fall back on, opposing hitters should have a better idea of what to expect in terms of his stuff and sequencing. If he plans to build off his rookie success, he’ll need to utilize his entire arsenal and, more specifically, execute his curveball consistently to keep hitters off his fastball-changeup combo.

Against the Reds, Wacha showed increased confidence in the pitch, using it as a get-me-over offering when behind in the count but also using it to get ahead. Of the 14 curveballs he threw in the game, six were on the first pitch of an at-bat, including all three right-handed hitters he faced in the second inning.

He also threw his curveball twice for a called strike in a 3-0 count.

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

His command of the pitch was shaky in his season debut (though obviously still effective) as he struggled to repeat a consistent release point from inning to inning.

Quite a few of them were flat and missed up, which suggests that he wasn’t sufficiently getting on top of the pitch to generate tight spin. He also overthrew and yanked several breaking balls to his glove side.

No one was expecting Wacha to have the pitch mastered in his first outing, though I would never put it past him. Therefore, the fact that he showed the confidence to use the pitch in a variety of counts against both right- and left-handed hitters was encouraging.

 

Inside Corner

A testament to the effectiveness of his fastball and changeup as well as his overall command, Wacha was successful in 2013 despite rarely pitching to the inner half of the plate, especially against right-handed hitters.

Courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com
Michael Wacha's 2013 pitch plot against right-handed batters.

As you can see in the above graphic, he employed a middle-away approach last season with his fastball and changeup, relentlessly attacking hitters’ eye levels while challenging them with pitches over the plate. 

But now that the book is out on Wacha, opposing hitters will presumably have a better idea of what to expect this season.

In theory, if he continued to pound the middle and outer portions of the zone with the same frequency he did last year, hitters would increasingly work deeper counts and learn to sit on a specific location. Therefore, it was nice to see Wacha attack the entire strike zone against righties and lefties. 

Specifically, he aggressively established his fastball on the inner half of the plate in the early innings, and it opened up the other side of the zone for the duration of his outing.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Lastly, his ability to command his fastball to the inside corner against same-sided hitters also allowed him to more effectively sequence his changeup. That was already one of his greatest strengths thanks to the similar release points for both pitches.

Wacha threw several outstanding changeups following well-located fastballs to the Reds’ right-handed batters, starting the pitch over the heart of the plate only to have it drop off the table at the last minute.

 

Future

Wacha’s season debut gave us a pretty reasonable idea of what to expect moving forward. Simply put: Dude’s good, and it’s already clear that he’ll only get better with experience.

His pure stuff, overall consistency and competitive edge gives him a chance to be successful each time he takes the mound. He won’t always throw six-plus scoreless innings—because, well, that’s impossible unless you’re 2013 Matt Harvey—but his ability to execute a highly specific game plan at least puts him in a position to shine. 

Even Wacha's rotation partner, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, doesn't want to see him change a thing, per Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com:

My advice to Wacha is the question that I ask him every time: "What are you going to do different?" He says, "Nothing." I say, "Perfect." That's my advice to Wacha. Don't do anything different than what you're doing and you'll be fine.

At this point, I’d normally reference Wacha’s projected statistics for the 2014 season, but after watching him neutralize Reds hitters, it seems crazy not to believe he will blow past expectations in what should be an excellent sophomore campaign.

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