What to expect when you're expecting Michael Wacha

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

Is it fair to expect Michael Wacha to be as good throughout April, May, June, July, August, September, and (maybe) October 2014 as he was in October 2013? Probably not.

Michael Wacha is the reigning NLCS MVP. The righthander is starting the St. Louis Cardinals' second game of the season today. And he'll start the club's home opener next Monday. Wacha begins the year as the Cardinals' No. 2 starter. But should our expectations for the young righty be as high as that?

Wacha burst onto the scene in 2012 after the Cards selected him in the first round of that June's amateur draft. Working two-inning stints in relief, Wacha mowed down Rookie, High-A, and Double-AA batsmen at a 23.2% clip over 21 innings. In spring training last year, he was so impressive that the Cardinals assigned him to the Triple-A Memphis rotation to start the year with an eye on his ascent to the majors later in the season.

It's easy to forget now, but the Cards didn't summon Wacha from Triple-A when they first had a rotation opening. First, St. Louis called up southpaws Tyler Lyons. At the time of Lyons's initial promotion, there was some kerfuffle about the Cardinals calling him up instead of Wacha. But, as azruavatar made clear at the time, Lyons had pitched as well as (if not better than) Wacha up to that point in the season.

Wacha's somewhat underwhelming Triple-A pitching didn't stop in late May. It lasted throughout his time there. While Wacha posted a shiny ERA, his strikeout and walk rates added a bit of tarnish. Pacific Coast League pitchers put up a 7.7 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 2013. While pitching in the PCL last year, Wacha posted a 7.73 K/9 and 2.01 BB/9. Put otherwise, his strikeout rate was about league average and his walk rate was well below average. Throw in homers allowed and Wacha's peripherals added up to a 3.53 FIP over 85 Triple-A innings, which his 2.65 ERA belied.

In the majors, Wacha's repertoire allowed him to post better strikeout rates during the regular and post-seasons than he did in Triple-A. While starting and relieving, Wacha managed a 9.06 K/9 during the regular season over 64 2/3 big-league innings. In October, Wacha's strikeout rate rose to 9.68 in 30 2/3 IP over five starts. His walk rate rose from 2.64 during the regular season to 3.52 in the fall. As a result, Wacha posted a 3.44 FIP that was well above his 2.64 ERA—just like in Triple-A.

ERA is not the most predictive pitcher stat. FIP, which is based on the events of a game that a pitcher has the most control over (strikeouts, walks, and homers), has more predictive value. Going by FIP, Wacha will likely post a mid-3.00's ERA going forward. The various projection systems forecast the same:

Projection

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

Oliver

27

19

124

.283

75.3%

7.17

2.39

3.48

3.76

Steamer

28

28

173

.289

72.4%

8.24

2.84

3.71

3.58

ZiPS

28

24

155

.295

73.5%

7.82

2.61

3.54

3.53

Add to the projections the fact that Wacha was by and large a two-pitch pitcher a year ago. He relied extensively on his fastball and changeup (which are pitches of a caliber than makes them rather reliable). Wacha threw a breaking ball and cutter as well, but rarely. Developing a third pitch—whether it's the breaking ball he graduated from Texas A&M with or the cutter he worked on during spring training—will help Wacha's effectiveness. It remains to be seen if he'll be able to effectively deploy a third or fourth pitch.

Wacha starts the season today as a postseason legend and the Cardinals' No. 2 starter. But there's good reason to temper our expectations for the young righty as the marathon of the 2014 regular season begins.

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