Positioned comfortably by a terrific start to his 2015 campaign, twenty-four year old right-hander Michael Wacha earned a deserving nomination to his first of hopefully many All-Star teams this season. That being said, Wacha's performance, headlined by a 4.42 ERA, has been less than stellar in nine starts since the start of June (despite a terrific June FIP of 1.91). Keep in mind, the long-term success of the 2015 Cardinals will be largely dependent on a successful Wacha.
Prior to the season, organization officials stated that the innings of all starting pitchers would be monitored, but as predicted, there was going to be increased attention on the workload of the prized arms of Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Wacha is currently projected to throw 174.1 and 189.1 innings this regular season by ZiPS and Steamer, respectively, which, with the playoffs likely looming, would put the right-hander at or beyond 200 innings for the first time in his professional career. One year removed from a unique shoulder injury, this must be taken into serious consideration by the Cardinals and their medical staff.
Thus, taking Wacha's decline in performance into account, along with the unpredictability of his shoulder's long-term health, should the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals actively pursue a starting pitcher before this Friday's non-waiver trade deadline? Before answering, let's first take a look behind the curtain at Wacha's 2015 season.
Since pitch velocity seems to be discussed on a consistent basis when it comes to Wacha, I figured it was best to start out with a month-to-month velocity chart from BrooksBaseball (unfortunately, their site is down right now). As you can see, July was Wacha's fastest month for each one of his pitches—with his fourseamer averaging nearly one MPH faster than any other month this season at 95.93 MPH (and the second fastest month overall behind the small-sample-sized, bad-memory-evoking October 2014). Thus, unless the uptick in velocity has affected his ability to command pitches, perfectly plausible but not necessarily able to be proven, velocity cannot be blamed for Wacha's decline in performance.
Looking solely at Wacha's walk rate brings about no cause for concern as he has actually walked even fewer batters since the start of June (5.29%) than the months prior when he was already pacing for a career best in that category. However, this can be deceiving as walk rate is defined by the term "control" and is not entirely independent of the batter. When you are talking about a pitcher as good as Wacha, "command" is a much better performance evaluator as well as predictor of future performance, and frankly, Wacha's command has been consistently lacking for the majority of 2015.
To provide some data to support a seemingly anecdotal statement, I went back and rewatched Wacha's start against the Atlanta Braves on July 26th (courtesy of MLB.TV). By my count, and I must admit that I was generous a few times given the situation (i.e. a filthy changeup running in on the hands of a right-handed batter for a strikeout, a "get-me-over" first-pitch curveball, etc.), Wacha hit Tony Cruz's target with his fastball (fourseamer, sinker) ~35% of the time, as compared to only ~22% of the time with his non-fastballs (cutter, changeup, and curveball).
Discussing fastball command is nothing new for me as I did a near identical exercise back in April (in case you were wondering, Wacha's fastball command was right at 35% back then, too). What was even more worrisome was the fact that Wacha had so much trouble locating his non-fastballs. Wacha's changeup is notorious around the league as being very tough to hit, but in Sunday's game against the Braves, it appeared that he had no idea where it was going, often missing Cruz's target by over a foot. He threw maybe one good curveball all game and bounced a handful of cutters in front of home plate. Of course, this is only one game (about as small of a sample size as possible), but it is definitely something worth tracking in future Wacha starts.
Vertical Release Point
From the graph, it is apparent that Wacha has experienced a not-insignificant monthly increase in vertical release point on each one of his pitches, with the most pronounced being his fourseam fastball at ~3.2 inches higher in July than where it was in April. I have talked about it before, but Wacha, at 6'6" is at his best when he able to take advantage of his large frame and incorporate significant downward tilt on his pitch flight.
Logically, a higher release point with the catcher's target remaining steady could signify an attempt to produce more tilt—a potentially beneficial modification. Conversely, a higher release point could also represent a pitcher executing compensatory mechanisms as he "fights" with his mechanics, deals with fatigue, or is struggling in some way physically. Now, in no way am I predicting that Wacha is injured, but his release point is definitely something to keep a close eye on going forward, especially if his command remains suspect because it is following a trend we have yet to see occur during his career.
Who is Available?
A John Lackey type pitcher that keeps surfacing in my mind is 35-year-old Colby Lewis (3.83 FIP in 126.1 IP), but this hinges on whether or not the Texas Rangers will be dealing at the deadline, which may not be the case considering they are currently only five games back from an American League wild card spot (but also have five teams to surpass which is the opposite of easy). Or John Mozeliak could call A.J. Preller and ask about one of the following Padres: Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, or Ian Kennedy. Ross is the best of the bunch but would likely require quite a haul considering he is cost controlled until 2018. Cashner (3.78 FIP in 116.1 IP), too, is cost controlled as he has one more season before reaching free agency. Finally, Kennedy has been really bad this year (5.25 FIP in 96.1), but he has a track record of being an "innings eater" and with a solid strikeout and walk rate, coupled with an HR/FB 50% higher than his career rate, he has the potential of being a significant bounce-back candidate.
Plus, there are always in-division possibilities such as Mike Fiers (3.89 FIP in 112.0 IP) and Mike Leake (3.88 FIP in 136.2 IP). While the Brewers and Reds are out of contention this year, I still do not see such a deal happening (especially given the projected price tag attached to both), but their names are worth mentioning considering they are pretty good pitchers and are widely considered to be on the trade block.
Organizational pitching depth has been incredibly important for the 2015 Cardinals. Given what took place in spring training, I would not have believed you for a second if you said that 100 games into the season, Marco Gonzales would be without a major league appearance. However, here we are, and though he is making progress in minor league rehab starts, in no way can (or should) the organization depend on him for consistent big-league starts down the stretch. Tim Cooney, the 24-year-old lefty who has shown that it was silly to write him off after his major league debut, finds his name on the minor league disabled list as he recovers from appendicitis. Should the condition require an appendectomy, the Cardinals cannot reasonably expect contributions from him for at least a month (but probably more). There is always Tyler Lyons, who was so-so in his six-start stint this season (4.43 FIP in 28.2 IP), but given how the Cardinals aligned the schedule for a second promotion of Cooney, their view of Lyons may be fading.
Wacha's issues with command (of all his pitches) is concerning. The pace of Wacha's workload one year after being shut down with a significant shoulder injury is also concerning. Neither of these are new developments, either. Ideally, the Cardinals could provide Wacha with some rest and/or time in the bullpen to work specifically on pitch command by filling his hole in the rotation with an internal option. However, given the immediate uncertainty of Gonzales' and Cooney's health, the Cardinals just may be pressured into looking externally for a starting pitcher. Here's to hoping such a transaction will result in a "Lackey" instead of a "Masterson."