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What should we expect of Michael Wacha's shoulder in 2015?

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As the weeks went by during the early days of winter, I began to worry that I had missed Jeff Zimmerman's recurring offseason post that uses disabled list stints to analyze injuries across Major League Baseball. The concern that maybe I had just missed the post gave way to a fear that, perhaps, Zimmerman just wasn't going to write the article this year. The post has become an annual must-read for me. My enjoyment coupled with my concerns that no such analysis would be posted led to me being quite pleased when Zimmerman published it before Christmas at The Hardball Times. You should read the article in its entirety as it looks at injuries in 2014 as well as historical trends and also has an interactive graph feature. It's terrific.

I'm going to share one of the many graphs and charts from the article, both to give you a taste of Zimmerman's analysis (seriously, read the entire article) and because it displays the information in a way that words can't do justice.

Source: Jeff Zimmerman, 2014 Disabled List Information and So Much More, The Hardball Times

Two things immediately struck me about this chart:

  1. The NL Central was pretty healthy in 2014. The top three finishers had the fewest, fifth-fewest, and six-fewest days lost to the DL in all of baseball last season. That seems unlikely to happen again in 2015.
  2. I was surprised (albeit pleasantly) that the Cardinals had lost relatively few days to the DL compared to the rest of the majors.

Looking at the breakdown further informs us that the Cardinals were particularly lucky when it came to position players landing on the DL in 2014. While St. Louis wasn't hit particularly hard by pitcher injuries, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia did spend quite a few days on the DL.

With Garcia, that was predictable. He was coming off corrective surgery for his labrum and rotator cuff. It took Chris Carpenter over two full seasons before he again took a big-league mound after undergoing a similarly invasive shoulder repair. Let's not think about Garcia's potential return post-thoracic outlet release surgery, the same procedure that ultimately ended Carpenter's career.

With Wacha, I'm left wondering how likely he is to spend time on the DL again in 2015 with shoulder issues. Should we expect Wacha to land on the DL in 2015 in the same way we expected Garcia to during 2014? First, the injury concern with Wacha's shoulder isn't the same as it was with Garcia's shoulder. Garcia's injury was more severe. It necessitated surgery; Wacha's didn't. But that doesn't mean Wacha's problem might not be chronic in nature, regularly recurring so long as he continues to make a living throwing a baseball overhand thousands of times each year.

The Cardinals righthander burst onto the MLB scene in 2013 on the strength of a deadly fastball-changeup combination that was so potent it won him the 2013 NLCS MVP. As VEB's own Aaron Finkel observed while reviewing Wacha's 2014 season, in the first part of last year, the Aggie was probably even better than he was during his dynamic 2013 debut. Wacha displayed a bigger repertoire of pitches and deployed them effectively—this was the type of varied approach that lends itself to prolonged big-league success for a starter.

Then Wacha hit the DL with a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder. Resident VEB Wacha analyst Aaron Finkel broke down that injury at the time it was announced, noting how rare it is in the majors. There was one comparable pitcher: Brandon McCarthy. In Aaron's post on Wacha's shoulder, he quoted an Athletics Nation interview with McCarthy from 2012, in which the righthander explained his shoulder condition, which is similar to Wacha's.

It's just right here (points to just under the shoulder blade almost around to the armpit/underside). It's a group of muscles that decelerate your arm. When you're throwing and your arm is trying to pull itself out of its socket, these are the muscles that say, "No you stay here." And they attach right through the scapula...and for some reason mine doesn't pull -- everyone else's does it fine, but mine would pull and pull and pull, so eventually the muscle keeps pulling on bone, the bone cracks a little bit.

What differentiated Wacha's injury from McCarthy's, however, is that the Cardinals diagnosed it sooner. Wacha's muscle had not yet pulled on the bone in such a way that it fractured or cracked, if you will. The prescription at the time was rest. And that's just what Wacha got while on the DL. During Wacha's DL stint, according to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com, he also underwent multiple MRIs to monitor the condition of his shoulder. As reported by FS Midwest's Stan McNeal, Wacha also "lift[ed] weights in an attempt to strengthen the shoulder area."

After a minor-league rehab stint cut short in part due to the end of the minor-league season, Wacha rejoined the St. Louis rotation, on what amounted to a major-league rehab stint. After two starts, the Cardinals shut Wacha down. Manager Mike Matheny indicated that they did so because Wacha didn't look right; for Wacha's part, he explained that he didn't feel right after throwing. After an eleven-day down period, Wacha made two regular-season starts in the heat of the pennant race before being relegated to the October bullpen. We all remember how that ended.

The Cardinals have shared some information about Wacha during the offseason. Langosch reported on Wacha's right shoulder from the post-NLCS press conference held by Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak:

Wacha underwent an MRI on Friday, and the Cardinals were encouraged to learn that it came back clean. "Even the doctors were a little surprised on how that looked," Mozeliak added. Wacha plans to follow a normal offseason program.

One the one hand, it's good news that an MRI of Wacha's once-injured throwing shoulder came back clean. On the other, Wacha's doctors expected that the MRI would reveal damage, apparently due to the nature of Wacha's injury.

During the Winter Meetings, Mozeliak was a guest on the MLB Network and, during that interview, doubled down on the "normal" offseason talking point, stating: "I can say Wacha's having just a normal offseason and his preparation for spring training, I've been told, is going very well."

What might Wacha's 2015 preparation entail? McCarthy and the Dodgers might have given us a clue at the press conference formally announcing L.A.'s four-year deal with the righty. Steve Dilbeck wrote a column for the L.A. Times that contains this nugget of information regarding McCarthy's shoulder health:

Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi and McCarthy argue a new conditioning program made him stronger, elevating his velocity a couple mph to 93 and enabling him to finally last the duration of a full season. Plus, it’s not like Chase Field is a pitcher’s ballpark.

Clearly the Dodgers believe the way he pitched in New York is further indication his past health issues are behind him.

"We feel really good about him turning the corner last year and think he has the ability to carry that kind of work load into the future," Zaidi said.

McCarthy said his injury problems were not the result of a bad labrum or any traditional pitcher’s shoulder ailment, but a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade. He said a weight-lifting program designed to add upper body muscle took pressure off the shoulder blade. He’s confident the issue is behind him.

Will an offseason weight-liftng program similarly help Wacha take pressure off his shoulder blade? Will he have to alter his mechanics? As our Craig Edwards wondered here at VEB during the season, might Wacha have to give up his nasty changeup? 2015 poses a lot of questions regarding Wacha's health. Only time will tell if Wacha is again a statistic in Zimmerman's 2015 DL analysis.