When the St. Louis Cardinals selected Michael Wacha in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft, the righthander was a three-pitch pitcher: fastball, changeup, and curveball. The Aggie's fastball-change combination was a tag team as potent as Legion of Doom (or, if you prefer, the Road Warriors). I call Wacha's fastball "Animal" and his changeup "Hawk." What a rush.
Last season, Wacha introduced a cut fastball to the mix. Also known as a cutter or, more wince-inducingly, a slutter (since sliders and cutters are often cross-classified by Pitch F/X algorithms). Wacha is apparently after a classic Four Horseman pitch arsenal. (I'll leave it for you to decide which pitch is Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, Arne Anderson, and Ole Anderson. Yadier Molina is obviously James J. Dillon in this scenario.)
Three weeks ago, Wacha was trying to find an ideal grip on the pitch. Now, he's getting outs off it.
"I fully believe in it," Wacha said after throwing 3 2/3 shutout innings against the Astros. "It's been working pretty well for me the last few outings."
Wacha isn't necessarily looking for the pitch to induce swings-and-misses. But it has produced weak contact and has given batters an extra pitch to consider when they step in against him.
Wacha first started tinkering with grips late last season, and he threw the cutter sporadically in his starts -- though almost always in situations where he couldn't be hurt by it. Now, he is using it to challenge hitters.
"The confidence level has definitely increased from throwing it in bullpens, throwing it warming up and then throwing it in these games for sure," Wacha said. "I can catch them off guard with a different pitch."
Adding new pitches is as much a hallmark of spring training as players being in the best shape of their lives. So this isn't particularly surprising. That Wacha has elected the cutter as his experimental pitch is predictable.
The cutter is a pitch many Cardinals have augmented their pitch arsenals to include. Most prominently, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright have deployed the pitch with success. Jason Motte expanded his pitch selection to two with a cutter. Lance Lynn will spin one home on occasion. And Shelby Miller sprinkled in some cut fastballs during the second half of last season. Wacha has a lot of guys he can glean cutter know-how from.
Wacha only threw a cut fastball 27 times in 95 1/3 big-league innings last year, a 1.8% share of his total offerings. This and the fact that he's still trying out different grip variations this spring indicates he wasn't particularly comfortable with the pitch. It will be interesting to see if Wacha gains enough confidence in his cutter this spring to commit to using it more often once games count.