Michael Wacha never sticks around quite long enough for us to get comfortable. Last year, right after he was drafted, the Cardinals were close enough to shutting him down that that became conventional wisdom for a day or two—too many college innings, not enough time to get settled, aggressive full-season assignment in 2013.
But he got a few innings. The Gulf Coast League, which is hardly baseball at all, let alone professional, and then long relief in high-A Palm Beach. If you were in Florida at the time you could probably tell he was dominant, but those eight innings and 16 strikeouts (and the one hit) that August were parceled out in two-inning increments. Five strikeouts, three strikeouts, three strikeouts, five strikeouts, and then—wow, that's pretty good.
But instead of a start or two in high-A—which seemed like a good, aggressive 2013 assignment—it earned him another incomprehensible little set of relief outings in AA. Eight innings, one run, 17 strikeouts that time. All we seemed able to divine from those 21 total innings was just how aggressive the Cardinals planned on being, and just how ill-equipped minor leaguers were for Michael Wacha with a relief pitcher's fastball.
There's the kind of small sample size you can discredit because it comes under strange circumstances—odd competition, unusual role, exhibition games—and the kind you can discredit because it doesn't look like baseball statistics anymore. Michael Wacha did both, usually simultaneously.
12 innings, 15 strikeouts, one walk, no earned runs. That was spring training, where Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn, and a soon-to-be-buried Joe Kelly were all getting crushed. When spring training numbers are particularly good or terrible (Edward Mujica's 11 runs in 12 innings) there's a tendency to argue backward from them to arrive at the conclusion that spring training numbers are meaningless. Obviously they're meaningless—just look at them.
And anyway Michael Wacha was already being pushed farther than anybody had expected and much sooner, to AAA with a near-certain major-league cameo at midseason.
And in AAA, in a new small sample size, he was just okay. Prior to his first call-up his ERA was 2.05, but this wasn't the dominant kind of small-sample size, like all his other layovers—it was the Tuffy-Rhodes-is-the-home-run-champion kind. 34 strikeouts in 53 innings.
There were others, as he bounced between Memphis and St. Louis, and his AAA numbers got better in time with his major league numbers, and now it's October 19 and the Cardinals have won the pennant and Michael Wacha has beaten Clayton Kershaw twice, and neither one was the start where he almost threw a no-hitter.
21 innings, 22 strikeouts, eight hits, four walks, three wins, one very loud earned run. And we're back in AA Springfield, where it doesn't make sense that he's there already, and the role's all wrong, and none of us were really weighing it as a possibility, but those are the numbers and it must have happened that way, somehow.