By now you’re probably familiar with the events of Michael Wacha’s return to the St. Louis Cardinals after spending months on the disabled list with a shoulder fissure. Because Wacha’s current state as unused postseason reliever is as much due to where he’s been as where he is, let’s review.
Once medically cleared to throw a baseball, the Cardinals gave Wacha a one-game rehab stint in the minors during which he tossed 34 pitches. Rather than sending Wacha to Memphis for a second minor-league rehab start during the Redbirds’ Triple-A playoff series, the Cardinals put the pedal to the metal, activating the 2013 NLCS MVP from the DL, and starting him in Milwaukee against the Brewers—who, lest we forget, sat atop the Central division standings at the time. Wacha didn’t look particularly good, but didn’t allow many runs, and the Cardinals won the game.
The jolt of acceleration continued in Cincinnati. Wacha was something less than sharp for a second straight start, but manager Mike Matheny kept the foot on the gas. Rather than yanking the struggling starter who was returning from a singular shoulder injury, Matheny sent Wacha to bat for himself in the fourth inning and sent the righty back out to the mound for the fifth. The Reds shelled Wacha, who was unable to spot his fastball, and the Reds won. After the game, Matheny justified leaving Wacha in to reach the 70-pitch benchmark because a fifth inning from the starter gave the Cards the best chance to win—even though St. Louis had a bullpen bursting at the seams with available arms thanks to the expanded roster of September.
Cards offense will need to start earlier in NLCS
The Cardinals' opening series was full of late-game drama, and the Giants series should provide more of the same. However, if the Cardinals are to advance to the World Series, they would be wise not to wait so late in the game to start hitting.
Then the Cardinals announced that Wacha would not make his next scheduled start and Matheny changed his tune. In contrast with the manager’s post-game remarks in Cincinnati, Matheny said that Wacha did not "look" right so the Cardinals were tapping the brakes on his return. Later, Wacha shared with the media that he didn’t "feel" right. The juxtaposition of the Cardinals’ talking points and Wacha’s candor raised an eyebrow.
During his rotation hiatus, Wacha must have felt good enough in his own view after throwing bullpen sessions and looked good enough in Matheny and the coaching staff’s eyes to again take the ball. In game action, though, Wacha continued to struggle at locating pitches. His pennant-race-rehab-stint came to a close in Arizona with a horrendous first two innings followed by three excellent frames. Wacha's performance raised the question of what the Cardinals should do with the righty during the postseason. General manager John Mozeliak maintained that, despite Wacha's rocky first two innings, the Arizona start did nothing to harm his chances of making the postseason rotation—perhaps because the Cardinals brass had already decided Wacha wouldn’t be in it.
The Cardinals announced that their fourth NLDS starter would be Shelby Miller, not Wacha. Because Wacha looked and felt off after his activation from the DL and return to big-league action, the Cards’ decision was the correct one. However, the decision to give Wacha a roster spot and place in the NLDS bullpen has revealed itself to have been a wrong one.
The move from the rotation to the bullpen can be tricky, and it starts with getting loose. Starters have as much time as they need to get ready for their first inning of work. They can run, stretch, and perform calisthenics—whatever they feel works best for their bodies. On the other hand, relievers have far less flexibility. Trouble strikes quickly so some arm stretches and medicine-ball tosses might be all a reliever has time for before beginning to throw in the pen.
What’s more, starters can throw as many warmup pitches in the bullpen as they see fit; relievers are typically more constrained. The fire a reliever will be called on to extinguish can blaze brighter the longer it’s allowed to burn. So, for a reliever, time is often of the essence when getting ready to enter the game.
Wacha last threw in relief late in the 2013 regular season, so he’s done it before. But, given Wacha’s shoulder injury this year and the fact that he didn’t feel or look right after being activated to pitch in live game action, it makes perfect sense that the Cardinals would want to avoid rushing him getting loose for a relief appearance. But this also makes Wacha a pitcher who is difficult to deploy. And that’s less than ideal in the brutal postseason when elimination hangs in the balance during every at-bat in a close game.
With these constraints in mind, it seems that there were perhaps a few opportunities to use Wacha during the NLDS. Instead, Matheny called on rookie southpaw Marco Gonzales. While there are some platoon considerations, I’d posit that, if right, Wacha’s fastball-curve-change combination is at least as good against lefthanded hitters as Gonzales’s fastball-curve-change combo. And given Wacha’s fastball velocity and postseason track record, he should have been the reliever of choice—that is, if the Cardinals feel his shoulder and sharpness are ready for postseason action.
After Adam Wainwright’s exit mid-fifth inning in Game 1, Wacha could’ve had the remainder of the bottom of the fourth and the entirety of the top of the fifth to get loose and pitch the sixth (and maybe the seventh). Instead, the Cards went with rookie lefty Marco Gonzales to face Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, and Carl Crawford. Matheny didn’t even have Wacha get loose.
In Game 2, it was clear after the bottom of the sixth’s first two batsmen reached that starter Lance Lynn wouldn’t see the seventh. Matheny stuck with his No. 2 starter and Lynn somehow wriggled out of trouble, keeping the game 2-0 and the Cards in striking distance. Game 2’s bottom of the sixth offered another situation in which Wacha could’ve started to get loose while L.A. batted and continued to do so as the Cardinals hit in the seventh, in preparation for starting the seventh inning out of the windup and with the bases empty, like a start. But Matheny didn’t jostle Wacha from his seat in the bullpen and again called upon Gonzales—this time to face Dee Gordon, Yasiel Puig, and Adrian Gonzalez.
Shelby Miller’s excellent start against the Dodgers in Game 4 ran off the rails rather quickly in the sixth inning. Once again, Wacha could’ve had the remainder of a St. Louis fielding inning and a whole Cardinals batting inning to get loose so he could take the ball in the seventh, bridging the gap to Pat Neshek and Trevor Rosenthal (as well as his ninth-inning insurance policy, Carlos Martinez). Once again, Matheny didn’t call on Wacha. The Aggie sat in the bullpen just as he did all series while Gonzales faced A.J. Ellis, Clayton Kershaw, Gordon, Crawford, and Gonzalez.
Matheny appears as likely to call on Wacha in relief this October as he was Miller after NLDS Game 2 a year ago. If the manager is predisposed—perhaps due to orders from the front office—to leave Wacha sitting in the bullpen unused, then Wacha should not be on an active postseason series roster. Playing with one reliever tied behind their backs puts the Cardinals at a competitive disadvantage.
This is not to say that the Cardinals should pitch Wacha if they have concerns about his health or relative ineffectiveness after returning from injury. Those are excellent reasons to not have Wacha pitch in the posteason. However, if the Cardinals are hesitant to use Wacha because of his shoulder injury and subsequent ineffectiveness, they should leave him off the roster and put a player on who can help the team win. Whether they go with an extra position player on the bench to provide Matheny with another baserunning, fielding, or pinch-hitting option or a reliever who might actually be called upon to pitch, either is better use of one of the team’s 25 roster spots than a pitcher the manager is inclined not to use because of health and performance concerns.
The Cardinals should leave Wacha off the NLCS roster if they aren’t going to use him.