Michael Wacha has not looked good to begin this season. He has not looked good in a way that is concerning. Very few Cardinals fans would disagree with this, I’d imagine. It’s been only three starts of course. Pitchers frequently go through stretches where they look straight up bad for a period of three starts, and it’s not as obvious if it happens in July. In July, fans would say “Hey Wacha has had a few bad starts,” but most people understand it’s a long season, see his season line, and shrug. In April, it’s all too clear how poor he has pitched.
Normally, I would brush off his poor start as exactly that. Unfortunately, it’s not just the fact that he’s had a poor start, it’s that he’s had a poor start with his velocity down. Velocity isn’t everything of course, but as a general rule, the faster you pitch, the better you pitch. Not everybody needs to throw 95 mph regularly to be good, but if a 95 mph pitcher starts throwing 93 regularly, he’ll probably be a worse pitcher.
To clarify though, Michael Wacha’s velocity is down from last season. It’s down from other seasons too, but the difference is not nearly as stark. Michael Wacha threw his fastball for an average velocity of 95.6 mph and his cutter for an average velocity of 91.2 mph. He has thrown his fastball for an average velocity of over 95 mph just twice in his career - last year and 2015 - and he has only thrown his cutter for an average velocity over 91 just in 2017.
In Wacha’s rookie season, he threw his fastball on average at 93.9 mph, he marginally improved that to 94.1 in his sophomore season, added a full mph in 2015 at 95.3, lost over a mph the next season for an average velocity at 93.8, and then last season, threw at a career high of 95.6. Wacha had a weak season in 2016 admittedly, starting only 24 games. He still managed a 3.91 FIP, and a 4.05 xFIP, but that was below the standard he has set. This season’s average fastball velocity of 93.5 is not quite as alarming if you look at his entire career. It’s still alarming though.
It’s also worth pointing out Fangraphs pitch value system is classifying one of his pitches this season as a slider that goes 94.1, which I’m just going to take a wild guess was a few misclassified fastballs, and which would actually marginally improve his average fastball velocity on the year. But I’ll ignore that because I don’t know what’s going on there.
Okay so maybe the weather is to blame for his poor start. His first two games were played in colder than normal weather. Way colder. Two of his three games thus far - one in New York playing in 50 degree weather and the other in St. Louis played below 40 degrees - look to be his literal coldest regular season game he’s ever started and one in the top ten.
So I went through every start that could be deemed “cold.” I picked every game that fell below 60 degrees. I picked a few that had a starting game temperature slightly above 60 degrees depending on if it was a night game, if it was rainy, if it was cloudy, or if it was particularly windy. The overall results did not exactly suggest Wacha pitches worse in cold weather:
I wouldn’t go as far as to say he pitches better in cold weather, because 98 IP is not a large enough sample size to be able to make that claim. Plus, if Wacha is actually fine and is in a slump, this year’s cold weather starts - which I did not include - would put these numbers closer together. The only point I’m trying to make is that Michael Wacha does not have a cold weather problem. Does his velocity dip in cold weather?
Again I excluded this year, because I’m trying to identify a problem, and I’m not seeing a cold weather problem. It is possible that the cold weather is only a problem this year, but with the absence of evidence, it is certainly not a conclusion I can reach. If you want to convince yourself it is a problem this year for whatever reason, his best start was in Cincinnati, where his strikeout to walk ratio was not 1 and he threw 94.1 mph in that start.
My last bit of research I want to conduct is to see if Wacha has ever gone through a stretch of three starts this bad. Obviously, yes he has. Last year, from August 13 to August 25, Wacha pitched 12.1 innings, allowing 14 runs, four homers, and had a strikeout to walk ratio of 9:5. His xFIP was 4.65, which is better than 4.91 (what he has now), but just about every other stat was worse. In 2016, from May 13 to May 24, he pitched 12 innings, allowed 16 earned runs, and had a strikeout to walk ratio of 10:8. His last three starts in 2015 produced 12 strikeouts and 11 walks across 14 innings while allowing 13 runs, partially thanks to 4 homers.
Has he had three straight games with his average velocity at 93.5? Unlike his poor games, he does not regularly have stretches like this. During his rookie season - and I don’t think there’s much value in looking that far back - he had two instances of throwing an average of 93.5 or less in three straight starts. The first time, his third game was separated from the first two by about two months because of a minor league stint so I will ignore that. The second time would be encouraging if it wasn’t five years ago. He threw 16.2 IP with 16 Ks, 6 BBs, and 3.24 ERA.
I’m similarly skeptical of the usefulness of the next time he did it, which as far as I can tell has happened only one other time. May 24 of 2016 is here again, and it continues through June 4. During those starts, he lasted 15 IP, struck out 14, walked 7 and allowed... 15 runs. His FIP was 3.55 and his ERA was 9.00. The majority of the runs are to blame on May 24 as he allowed 8 of them that game.
Should we be worried about Michael Wacha? I’ll remain optimistic and say not quite yet. The combination of the velocity loss from last season and his poor peripherals are certainly disconcerting. But three starts is still just three starts. Pitchers lose their mechanics at times and it could be as simple of a problem as that. Maybe the temperature doesn’t capture just how brutal playing in the cold has been this year as compared to years’ past. He did pitch more to his career in his last start when it was a normal baseball temperature.
Wacha has had different velocities throughout his career and he’s basically remained the same pitcher throughout, sabermetrically speaking. If the velocity dip is for real, I still think he can adjust. I would mentally lower my expectation of him going forward, but I’m relatively optimistic he would still be an average pitcher.
At the same time though, let’s see how he pitches Friday. Every subsequent game after this gives us more data to determine what to expect. I know that a good game - a genuinely good game, not a “good” game where he strands 10 runners - would make me feel a whole lot better about Wacha.