In the aftermath of Michael Wacha's shoulder injury (a scapular stress reaction), it's easy to forget that the young pitcher looked every bit an ace for the 15 starts he made prior to hitting the DL. His late season triumphs in 2013 were highly auspicious, but coming into 2014, it was fair to wonder if he could continue to excel with just two pitches to lean on, a fastball and changeup. He made that question irrelevant by adding a cutter and showing development in his curveball, which was rather embryonic in 2013. Let's take a look at our projections and his final numbers.
I'm not sure how to pick a "winning" projection here, but considering those end of season numbers include his rocky major league de facto rehab outings in September, it's fair to say that Wacha was cashing in on the promise he exhibited the year before. Taking out his September return, Wacha had an 8.27 K/9, 2.59 BB/9 with a 2.79 ERA up through June 17, and he recorded those numbers by using four pitches instead of two, which I considered to be the most positive development in the entire organization up until his injury.
In 2013, 91% (this and the following from the essential brooksbaseball.net) of the pitches Michael threw were the fourseam fastball or changeup, with nearly all of the balance made up with a curveball that could be effective only as an element of surprise. In 2014, Wacha threw his two dominant pitches just 76% of the time. He added the cutter 11% of the time as a complement to his fourseam fastball, and upped his curve to 13%, used both as an occasional weapon and as a primary tool on days when he lacked a feel for the changeup (notably his memorably strange 4 IP 10 K game in a windy Citi Field April 23).
The results in those fifteen starts pre-injury were similar to his limited run in 2013, but getting them with four pitches instead of two sure felt more sustainable going forward, and Wacha looked capable of wresting away the title of staff ace from Adam Wainwright before too long. But, then, the injury.
Revisit here the initial analysis of the news with some discussion of Brandon McCarthy as a comp, since McCarthy has dealt with an injury similar to Wacha's chronically over the course of his career, and here Craig Edwards looked at Wacha's missing changeup upon his return in September (it would return the next start). The two articles explore the two-headed monster of new Wacha worry:
First, will this injury be chronic like McCarthy's, and if so how many innings can we count on from Michael in future seasons? McCarthy missed 1-2 months more seasons than not, though it's good to see he threw 200 innings as a 31 year-old in 2014.
Second, assuming Wacha is able to pitch regularly going forward, will he need to change his approach? Craig's article mentioned that McCarthy stopped using his changeup after 2011, which would certainly hinder Wacha, as it's his best pitch. On the bright side, Brandon's velocity hasn't appeared to be affected by the recurring shoulder problems.
Wacha struggled a bit in his four brief September starts, especially with command. But the positive news, namely that the medical team deemed him healthy enough to pitch and he showed no issues with velocity or throwing all of his pitches, far outstripped any concern over some rust. And after a clean MRI, Wacha is having a normal offseason now, and the hope is that he can move forward with his career healthily. It makes sense to me to give this possible future a shot before looking at changes to his delivery or arsenal, but I expect to be nervous after any stretch of poor pitching from him next season.
The birth of a potentially chronic injury is rightfully the first thing that comes to mind in considering Michael Wacha's 2014 season. However, it shouldn't be lost that he also debuted an expanded repertoire, something that should help him going forward, especially if the injury makes his changeup less of a sure bet. Nevertheless, when it comes to how optimistic or pessimistic we are about Wacha's 2015, the most telling number in our projections next March will be that column all the way to the left.
Since it's the holiday season, I'll end this review with some hopefully merited reassurance by resurrecting this tweet: