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What 2016 has taught us about Michael Wacha's future

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After nearly three years with the Cardinals, it is still hard to know what to expect from Michael Wacha.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, in 64 2/3 innings pitched in his age-21 season (full disclosure: he was a day away from 2013 being considered his age-22 season), Michael Wacha was worth 1.7 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. Among rookie pitchers age 21 or younger, Wacha ranks tied for 26th in WAR in the 21st century, itself a mildly impressive feat but one which is magnified by the fact that only Luis Severino and Matt Cain were worth more in fewer innings.

And this was before a postseason in which Michael Wacha carried a perfect game into the 6th inning and a no-hitter into the 8th inning of his first career playoff start. He followed up this impressive performance in a do-or-die game against the Pittsburgh Pirates by throwing 13 2/3 scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 1.64 FIP while out-pitching Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, twice, and rightfully earning NLCS MVP.

His 2013 World Series results were a little more mixed, with a decent start in Game 2 and a decidedly worse start in Game 6. But the hype was there. Wacha was often compared to Adam Wainwright, a comparison which was both unfair to Wacha and, as Joe Schwarz noted two years ago, inaccurate.

Those who expected Michael Wacha to, at age 22, immediately begin a run of excellence reminiscent of peak Wainwright were bound to be disappointed, and Wacha wasn't that. In 2014 and 2015, Wacha, in the exact same number of innings, was worth the same amount of WAR as Chris Young. Comparing Wacha to this very tall Texan would seemingly be apropos, but it's never going to be as exciting to Cardinals fans as comparing him to the hands-down best Cardinals pitcher of the last decade.

While 2013 Wacha struck out just over nine batters per nine innings pitched, he has struck out fewer than eight per nine since. He has dealt with occasional streaks of low strikeout results: following his return from a DL stint in 2014, Wacha went six consecutive starts with four or fewer strikeouts. It seems unlikely that Wacha's current true talent level is that of a flamethrower, even to whatever extent he could be classified as one in 2013. But this also does not mean he is a No True Outcomes pitcher in the mold of Mark Buehrle, either.

So what is Michael Wacha?

April 5 at Pittsburgh: 4 1/3 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 98 pitches

Michael Wacha reached 98 pitches in his 2016 debut, arguably a byproduct of being left in the fifth inning too long with the intention of allowing him to qualify for a win. Unfortunately, a Gregory Polanco sacrifice fly off of Wacha's replacement, Tyler Lyons, tied the game and the Cardinals went on to lose the game in 11 innings.

Wacha did not pitch especially well, though a .526 opponent batting average on balls in play played a major role in his poor performance. However, of the nineteen balls put in play, nine were classified as line drives. He induced ten ground balls, which tend to produce relatively poor results (in 2014, batters produced a .239 batting average on ground balls, with very little extra base power), but line drives are high-percentage hits which often go for extra bases. And when nearly half of balls in play are hit hard, a pitcher better be striking out a ton of batters, which Wacha was not.

April 11 vs. Milwaukee: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 94 pitches

There is something elegant about this line. It looks so good but it also looks so realistic. A Michael Wacha, or anybody, who strikes out 15 in six innings could not possibly maintain that pace, but seven? He can handle seven.

Because he struck out more batters than he did in Pittsburgh, Wacha was less exposed to BABIP-influenced results (whether earned or lucky), which given the eight line drives hit off of him, was a very good thing. On line drives alone, Wacha "deserved" more than four hits allowed. But while Wacha was probably lucky to get six shutout innings, he did pitch well enough that he deserved moderate success, if not a pitching line as pristine as the one above.

April 17 vs. Cincinnati: 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 80 pitches

This was easily Wacha's least prolific start, throwing 14 fewer pitches than he threw in his next least intense start. And while he did gradually begin to lower the number of line drives hit against him, this time allowing just six, Wacha also struck out two fewer batters. While Wacha allowed more hits than he deserved, the 1.50 ERA on the day was largely aided by sequencing luck.

April 23 at San Diego: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 0 K, 97 pitches

This start was a disaster waiting to happen. Although the contact he allowed was generally pretty soft, allowing just four line drives, the complete lack of strikeouts left Michael Wacha at the mercy of BABIP. And any ball in play, even a softly hit one, has a much better chance of turning into a hit than a strikeout.

Luckily for Wacha, things never really got out of hand. And in spite of allowing four walks and hitting another batter, he allowed only two runs. The soft contact is some redemption for Wacha's game, but only some. He got flat out lucky against the Padres.

April 28 at Arizona: 7 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 9 K, 114 pitches

For the first time in 2016, Michael Wacha allowed a home run. In fact, he allowed two of them. And to Chris Herrmann and Brandon Drury, of all people.

This has generally not been a huge problem for Michael Wacha in his career. In each of his MLB seasons, and so far in this one, Wacha has allowed fewer home runs than his number of fly balls allowed would suggest. There is not clear  consensus in the sabermetric community about how much home run suppression is a skill, but there is no doubt that if a pitcher allows a lot of fly balls, he is playing with fire, especially compared to ground balls, which do not tend to be hit out of a lot of stadiums.

In his previous start, Wacha had allowed 13 fly balls. In this one, he had six. And two of them went over the outfield wall. For all of the luck Wacha had in San Diego, he did not have it against the Diamondbacks.

May 3 vs. Philadelphia: 8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, 100 pitches

Wacha once again allowed a home run, this time to Ryan Howard, who somehow still trails Barry Bonds on the all-time home run list in spite of playing several games per season at Busch Stadium. While one home run allowed on eight fly balls is technically more than he deserved, it's hard to get too indignant about what would round up to one dinger.

Once again, though, Wacha did generally well. He allowed only two line drives and he missed a decent number of Phillies bats. He, of course, got the loss, because baseball is completely unfair, but this is also why you shouldn't put any stock in pitcher wins and losses.

So what is Michael Wacha?

The best thing I ever did was I stopped expecting Michael Wacha to be the next (fill in name of great pitcher; usually Wainwright though occasionally a different generational talent). Because he probably isn't that.

But most pitchers aren't that. And if a pitcher can turn into a solid #2 or #3 starter, that's a really valuable thing to have. And so far in 2016, his ERA, FIP, and xFIP are all down from 2015, currently standing, respectively, at 2.65, 3.43, and 3.66. And for a pitcher who is still two months away from his 25th birthday, incremental improvement is not a far-fetched expectation.

But even if he comes back down to Earth a little bit and plateaus somewhere around his 2015 level, that's not exactly a bad thing to have either. A championship-level team needs guys like Michael Wacha to fill out the rotation, and while one could certainly argue whether the 2016 Cardinals are championship-level, they presumably will try to be for the next several seasons. And in those seasons, a solid starter like Wacha will be an important piece.