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Wacha’s future

Looking at the similarity score to see comparable pitchers to Wacha.

MLB: Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday the Cardinals won their fifth straight game. They came against the Pirates and Royals, so they should have handled those teams and they did. Both teams have a combined -190 run differential after all (which sadly is better than the Tigers and Orioles who are at a combined -475 and yes you read that right). But here’s the thing: just because you should beat those teams doesn’t mean it will happen. Both teams do have a greater than 0% winning percentage after all.

Tonight, it will be somewhat of a surprise if it gets extended into a six-game winning streak. For starters, winning six games in a row is hard. But more importantly, Michael Wacha is pitching tonight. Which may be a survivable thing, except he is facing Sonny Gray, who has been a vastly superior pitcher this year. Also the Reds are a legitimately solid team. It hasn’t necessarily shown on the W-L column, but they are +26 run differential on the year, which is better than the Cardinals. Hopefully, that will not remain the case after these next four games.

Wacha has had a strange, although not atypical career, as this post will show. My original intention was to see if Wacha, at 28, had pitchers with similar career arcs, who around their age 28 season, were about as bad as Wacha through 15-20 games, who were able to turn it around for the last month and a half. Then I realized that Wacha has been a nearly dead average pitcher over his career as a whole and that the answer is almost certainly “yes it happens, but it’s rare.” And I didn’t really feel like spending hours researching a point that I already know the answer to.

Plus, B-R features a cool tool that I nonetheless believe is rather useless for analysis purposes: similarity scores. If you’re not familiar, B-R takes similarity scores from Bill James, who developed it back in the 1980s, and compares players based off their stats. You start at 1000 for pitchers and subtract points based off the difference in their stats. It incorporates stats like wins and losses and I do not believe is adjusted for era, so like I said, not all that useful for analysis. It’s not completely useless though. ZiPS uses a much more modified and statistically rigorous process but is pretty much the same concept for its projections.

This tool features similarity scores at each age Wacha has pitched, so that’s also fun. For instance, at age 22, his most similar player was a player name Spec Harkness - great 1910 baseball name there - who pitched 136 IP with 0.9 WAR and was out of baseball two years later. Second most similar player was Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard was not one of the five most similar players after 22 shockingly. At age 23, we have Shelby Miller as his most similar pitcher. I don’t know what the odds are that your most similar pitcher statistically is your own teammate for a time but in the 100+ years of baseball, it would seem extremely unlikely.

Age 24 is a doozy. In his top five are Lance McCullers Jr, Justin Verlander, and Kerry Wood. Wood is known for his injury problems like Wacha, but did have a 2.9 fWAR season in his age 27 season before falling apart. Unfortunately, it’s here where the flattering comparisons mostly end.

For his age 25 and 26 seasons, and 2nd now, is Tommy Hanson. Hanson recently died at age 29, after his baseball career had effectively ended, but was a pretty good pitcher there for a while. Injuries shortened his age 24 season and he was replacement level at age 25, which doesn’t quite match Wacha’s trajectory. A bad 73 innings at age 26 was the last he pitched in the MLB.

Jumping past Hanson this year is Jair Jurrijens, who jumped to 2nd by age 26, and is now his most similar pitcher statistically. Again, not really a player you want to be compared to past 23. Jurrijens had two straight 3+ fWAR seasons, had an injury-shortened and not very good season in 2010, and returned for a last gasp at 25 season with 152 IP of 2.96 ERA ball (with a huuuuge ERA-FIP disparity). He pitched 63 innings in the MLB the rest of his career.

In more positive news, the next three pitchers are all still in baseball. Collin McHugh is third, although he is not all that similar to Wacha at all. He debuted at 25, didn’t crack the starting rotation until 27, and had three straight 2.8+ fWAR seasons starting at 27. Fifth on the list doesn’t work well as a comparison either. Chase Anderson, current Brewers pitcher, debuted at 26.

Alex Cobb is back into “this comparison makes sense” territory. He started his MLB career a year later than Wacha at 23, had a similar amount of innings and success in his first year, and had a similar injury-shortened, solid second year. Unlike Wacha, Cobb didn’t really put together a full, healthy season until he was 29 and Wacha has technically had two seasons with 30+ starts already. Still Cobb is a decent, although unexciting, reason for optimism, as again he was able to put together a full season of above average pitching at 29. We are forced to ignore his Orioles tenure.

Cardinal pitcher and Dizzy’s brother Paul Dean, is sixth on this list, but that’s also a hard comparison to take too seriously. He had two magnificent seasons at 21 and 22 and then pitched sporadically for the rest of his career, never coming close to those heights. The seventh guy was Dickey Kerr, who was on the 1919 White Sox but not involved in the Black Sox scandal. He held out for more money after the 1921 season, Charles Comiskey refused to pay, so he played exhibition games for other teams, and the commissioner Kenesaw Landis suspended him for it. He did not play baseball for the next three years. Interesting and sad story, but not really all that comparable to Wacha either.

Another comparison that makes sense on the surface, Garrett Richards, falling at eighth. Richards didn’t have the fast start Wacha did - he pitched less than 100 combined innings in his first two seasons at ages 23 and 24. He split between the bullpen and rotation the next year and moved into the rotation full time by 26. Two great seasons later, and the dude still hasn’t managed to stay healthy for more than 76 innings in the last four years. More of a Jaime Garcia vibe on this one. The next two are Kyle Hendricks and Hisashi Iwakuma, neither of which I’m looking at the stats for, because I already know they aren’t similar.

Before I end this post, I did find a similar player to Wacha I haven’t mentioned yet, one that would give fans of Wacha both optimism and pessimism. Brought up at 21 for just four games, this player split time between the bullpen and rotation at 22, and put together back-to-back 38 start, above average seasons his next two years. An injury-shortened and not very good season at 25 followed. He rebounded with an almost complete season at 26 and ate a lot of innings the next year, but was merely average in doing so. Like Wood, I wish Wacha had made this comparison a little better by actually having a decent age 27 season, but that did not come to pass. This player is Dennis Martinez by the way. Martinez didn’t have another good season until he was 32, and he ended up in the league until he was 44, having an improbable late 30s career resurgence.

What do these scores tell us? Not much to be honest. Historically speaking, pitchers who pitched similar to Wacha so far did not tend to have much of a career from this point forward. This is not specifically relevant to the Cards as Wacha is assuredly leaving after this season, but I am still hoping for better results in the future. And if you want to get really pessimistic, these results do not suggest much good for the rest of the season either. But who knows? Maybe something will click into place and he’ll be back to his old self. Probably not, but stranger things have happened.