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The Evolution of Michael Wacha the Pitcher

The Michael Wacha who will take the mound in NLCS Game 6 is not the same pitcher we saw make his big-league debut in May.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Cardinals drafted Texas A&M righthander Michael Wacha with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, the scouting reports were in agreement that his changeup was a plus offering and his fastball very good. Wacha's breaking ball, on the other hand, received mixed reviews. Some were positive; others more measured.

After Wacha's debut for Double-A Springfield in August of last year, he confirmed the more measured assessments of his breaking pitch:

"I would probably say I threw [the fastball] 75 percent of the time. The changeup is definitely my second pitch. My curveball is coming along, but it's still a work in progress. In college, it was kinda loopy and I only used it as a get-it-over pitch for a strike. But now it's a little tighter."

Wacha then gave an even more candid assessment of his repertoire at that point in time and his ultimate goals:

"My biggest weakness is needing to develop my curveball to make it a better pitch," said Wacha, who will not pitch anywhere this fall after the team suggested he rest his arm once the Minor League season is over.

"With three plus pitches, I can really keep hitters off-balance and that would make me more effective. If I can do that the last month, I would consider it a success."

Meanwhile, talent evaluators were giving Wacha's collection of pitches rave reviews. That same month, Kevin Goldstein (then of Baseball Prospectus) enthused that "his fastball has been firmly parked at 92-94 mph while touching 96-97, with both his curveball and changeup being plus pitches, with the curve already looking better than the college version." In October, Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks echoed Goldstein's assessment:

Using his height well, Wacha is able to create a steep plane to the plate, pumping fastballs in the 93-94 mph range and reaching back for 97. His curveball seemed to enjoy the professional stage, as most reports suggested the 12-to-6 breaker was a major league plus pitch. His 84 mph changeup also flashed plus, giving Wacha the potential for three above-average pitches, to go along with his impressive feel for command and control.

As the Hot Stove warmed up, Marc Hulet shared the following nugget about Wacha at Fangraphs in his post on the top 15 Cardinals prospects:

A talent evaluator I spoke with said everyone was surprised with how quickly the young pitcher moved up to double-A and was able to dominate hitters at that level. He also called the prospect's curveball "a lot better than people were saying. It was plus at times, sitting MLB average."

In May, John Sickels gave Wacha's arsenal the following review at our sister site Minor League Ball:

His best two pitches are his low-to-mid-90s fastball and his outstanding changeup. He has a curveball and a slider. Both pitches remain inconsistent, but I felt they were rather underrated coming out of college and his ability to deal with pro hitters without much trouble so far augers well.

That same month, Baseball Prospectus ran this positive assessment of Wacha by Jason Cole:

The 21-year-old righty has shown lots of polish early this season, pounding the strike zone with a three-pitch mix that includes a 90-95 mph fastball. He generates a steep downhill plane from his 6-foot-6 frame. His secondary pitches play well off the fastball--particularly his deceptive low-80s changeup, which is already a plus offering. Wacha's curveball has been a key development since college; it's presently average to solid-average and should become a third plus in the near future.

At the end of May, Wacha made his big-league debut against the Kansas City Royals. His curveball was essentially M.I.A. Molina and Wacha wove seven innings of two-hit ball on 93 pitches with just three curves sprinkled in the mix. Wacha tossed nine Uncle Charlie's in each of his third and fourth starts on the year but then the Cardinals moved him to bullpen. Wacha did not throw his curve once in his first four relief appearances. Even after returning to the rotation late in the year, Wacha did not spin his breaker with much more regularity.

During the 2013 regular season, Wacha never threw more than nine curves in a game, which he did twice--on both June 11 and August 10. The 9.09% share that Wacha's curve made up on August 10 was the highest of the regular season. Wacha dabbled with a cutter late in the year, which ate into his curve's share of the action. Nonetheless, the regular season made clear that Wacha's bread and butter were his fastball and changeup.

When the calendar turned to October, Wacha's approach changed.

Against the Pirates in NLDS Game 4, Wacha unleashed his curve 14 times, a total just times three fewer than his changeup. Pirates swung and missed at his curve 21.43% of the time, a rate that nearly equaled Pittsburgh's 23.53% whiff rate against his filthy change. (For added context, Adam Wainwright's curveball generated a swing-and-miss 16.08% of the time in 2013.) Wacha's arsenal in NLDS Game 4 was other-realm wicked.

When asked after the game about the increased use of his breaking ball, Wacha said:

I just think it was looking pretty good in the bullpen warming up. You know, they kind of worked it in there early there for a little bit. It was a pretty effective pitch for me. Kevin kept them more off balance in that sense. I think that was one of the main things when I got my first call up here to St. Louis. I didn't really have that third pitch with the curveball and stuff. I was able to go back down to Memphis and work on that quite a bit and be able to throw it for strikes and in different counts. Since I've been back, it's helped out pretty much quite a bit.

(Has Wacha named him pitches? Is Wacha's curveball named Kevin? What is his fastball's name? His change?)

Against the Dodgers in NLCS Game 2, Wacha again deployed his curve at a high rate, throwing it 13 times (12.15% of the time). However, the pitch was not as effective against L.A. as it had been against Pitt. Dodgers swung and missed at Wacha's curve 7.69% of the time. While far less impressive than in NLDS Game 4, this whiff rate was nearly double the swinging strike rate of 3.85% he induced during the regular season with his curveball.

In tonight's crucial NLCS Game 6, we won't see the Wacha who made his big-league debut in May. The Iowa City native has evolved from that fastball-changeup pitcher to one who deploys a fastball, changeup, and curveball. The key to Wacha's success tonight may very well be how effectively he can utilize his curve to keep the Dodgers off-balance at the plate.