Michael Wacha in the Big Leagues

Wacha, Wacha - Dilip Vishwanat

A year after being drafted, Wacha finds himself part of the St. Louis Cardinals rotation and headed for the post season.

Michael Wacha's consecutive scoreless inning streak ended last night after 20 some innings. It was an impressive feat for a player just a year removed from college and speaks to the somewhat surprising level of success Wacha has enjoyed at the majors.

Consider the following rookie players:

Player K/9 BB/9 FIP
Michael Wacha 8.59 2.98 3.15
Rookie A 9.27 2.88 3.62
Rookie B 6.64 3.32 3.64

When comparing Michael Wacha to other rookies familiar to us, he comes off quite well. Shelby Miller (Rookie A) has arguably pitched worse than Wacha this season. Miller has had a bit of homeritis and Wacha has been a touch lucky on home runs but certainly their rate stats show comparable players.

This is the trick though as there is any time someone presents you with a list that includes unidentified players. Rookie B is Michael Wacha as a starter. Michael Wacha's line for the season is bouyed by 10 incredible relief innings. His 40 innings as a starter are pretty mundane with an xFIP of 4.34. Michael Wacha the reliever was virtually untouchable. He had 16.0 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 over those 10 relief innings. 45% of the batters he faced struck out. That's remarkable.

This isn't to denigrate Wacha's contribution but it is worth making sure that expectations for him in 2014 (or the post season) don't rise to high. The other apt aspect about the comparison of Wacha and Miller is that they are both two pitch pitches. Miller throws a fastball or a curveball 91% of the time. Wacha throws a fastball or a changeup 92% of the time. (Note: I don't have a breakdown for Wacha's pitch selection as a starter and presumably it improves in that context.)  Miller can do that because his fastball is so good. Wacha can do that because his changeup is so good.

Michael Wacha is certainly someone that can pitch at the major league level. Typically prospects who rely mostly on two pitches encounter a great deal of pearl clutching from local beat writers about their ability to survive in the majors long term. Wacha has mostly avoided that criticism but it's a question worth asking when the Cardinals have a plethora of arms for 2014. That question is two-fold: 1) Would Wacha's development be better served in the long run working on developing a third pitch in the minors rather than the majors and 2) do we have another starting pitcher that is currently equal or better than Wacha to pitch in the major league rotation right now?

The first question is the more difficult of the two to answer. Does a prospect develop better/easier in the minors rather than the majors? There's no hard evidence for either side of that question and, generally, I find myself on the side of it not making much of a difference what level a prospect is at. The second question can be oversimplified to a comparison of projections for players.

Michael Wacha has done well against an uncertain schedule and not knowing for much of the season whether he'd be pitching in Memphis or St. Louis.  The Cardinals have needed him to plug unexpected holes both in the bullpen and in the rotation. That's not to say the transition to the big leagues has been flawless but it's been awfully good.

Someday we might get tired talking about how bright the Cardinal's future is. Today just doesn't happen to be that day.W

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