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Michael Wacha’s Approach to 2018 Has Been... Weird

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Curveballs early and less heaters. This is a different Wacha.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve gone through an entire season of ups and downs with the Cardinals rotation.

Carlos Martinez started - again - with first-inning struggles, quickly pivoting towards success. Luke Weaver began to fulfill the calls of further breakout, only to fall off sharply in his last few outings. The wild card, Miles Mikolas, has ground-balled his way through quality innings.

Then we have Michael Wacha, who aligns with the Carlos Martinez brand of roller coasters, starting with three less-than-ideal outings before re-routing his path back to promise.

Everybody has their own way of analyzing pitchers. I tend to start with a thought, understand everything I can about how wrong or right I am, and absorb other information along the way. This is useful when you’re not 100 percent sure of the endpoint for a column, but detrimental when falling into deep rabbit holes that accelerate time faster than Jordan Hicks’ fastball (if only he was successful with this fastball!).

Noticing a 15 percent drop in Wacha’s first-pitch strike rate was a product of my usual rummaging around statistic layouts. Digging a little bit deeper, the root of this data point becomes more apparent.

Wacha is using his curveball substantially more on 0-0 counts that he has in the prior year, up to 37 percent of the time from 14 percent in 2017. Baseball Savant has a nice visual that breaks this out, keep an eye on the purple dot in the red circle below (you can interact with the chart here).

My perplexion arose when I realized Wacha’s curveball hasn’t been an effective pitch this season, generating only a single whiff in 71 tries. His spin on the pitch isn’t great, and while its vertical break sits in the 75th percentile of the league, the lack of two-plane bend might be limiting the offering’s upside.

Even more confusion comes when you remember Wacha used his curveball last season in a supporting-cast role: 10 percent usage evenly distributed based on count and handedness.

So why alter the use of a pitch after a complimentary role made this curve a plus offering in 2017?

“Guys are still learning to pitch... They don’t have it all figured out even when they ‘make it’.”

I reached out to a pitching guru/friend of mine and former Independent League stalwart, Dan Blewett (@CoachDanBlewett; DanBlewett.com), for some perspective on why a pitcher might adapt in such a manner and he obliged. (Note: I didn’t disclose the pitcher was Michael Wacha to Dan.)

“If the pitch isn’t a strikeout pitch then you can’t strike people out with it. So you throw it early to finish guys off with your stronger stuff.”

Wacha used his curveball in a variety of counts last season, prefering to spin it when he was ahead, but shying away from elevated usage. Pulling it out sparingly could have made the pitch effective due to its place lower on the list of pitches to focus on.

Navigating back to Dan’s last point is echoed in the righty’s tendency: more fastball usage when he’s ahead in the count to right-handed hitters (up nearly 10 percent). Wacha wants to use his fastball later in counts and setting it up with a curveball is the logical sequence to throw off a hitter’s timing.

Any other reasons for Wacha’s early count curveball usage?

Funny you should bring that up, Eno...

Wacha’s 2018 curveball location.

“Stealing strikes” might be an understatement based on Wacha’s location of his curveball early in 2018. Sustainable? Likely not when hitters start to look for Wacha’s curveball early, as Eno says.

Wacha may need to pivot to something else. This might be a heavier reliance on his changeup, as the pitch that made him relevant has continued on its tour of success. The pitch’s whiff rate per BrooksBaseball remains stable with last year, but Fangraphs Pitch Value metric shows the results on the pitch have been fantastic.

Wacha’s elevated changeup usage also leads to a sequence of pitches for Wacha relatively foreign to his repertoire: curveball-changeup. I normally revert to tunneling data when looking at fastball-changeup, an extremely common sequence for changeup-dominant pitchers like Wacha, but this dual-offspeed look is a pairing Wacha only used 61 times all of last season and he’s already halfway to that number only five starts into 2018.

While tunneling metrics don’t favor the combination - likely because of their deviation from one another on Wacha’s release - tunneling isn’t the “end all, be all” of effectiveness. Sometimes, as we know so much from pitchers who go on hot streaks, merely giving hitters something they haven’t seen can buy time in the realm of success.

But as the gates of that realm start to close, while we can admire the versatility Wacha is showing as he alters his approach, instead of focusing on how to navigate back to his fastball from soft stuff early in counts, the most effective endpoint might be acknowledging how good his changeup has been and embracing its effectiveness.

In Tuesday’s start at home against the White Sox, Wacha started seven of the 24 batters he faced with curveballs, with four of those initial hooks coming in the third inning. His most used non-fastball pitch was his cutter, which he featured early in counts as well, while his changeup was slightly down in usage compared to the expectations set by this season so far.

The results could have been worse (5 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K), even though one of Wacha’s two credited runs came on a Marcell Ozuna miscue that won’t show up as an error in the books.

It felt like more of the same from Wacha, continuing on what I would consider a weird start to his season. I support tinkering, but I’m most interested to see if and when consideration is given to his changeup, a pitch with more arm-side run in 2018 than any other point in Wacha’s career and equaling the drop of 2016 when the pitch earned a career-high whiff rate for the righty, save his dominant 2013.

Wacha’s next outing will likely come next Monday against another AL Central opponent, the Minnesota Twins. I’ll have an eye on each of the points presented above.

Follow me on Twitter - @LanceBrozdow

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