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Why are the St. Louis Cardinals benching Michael Wacha?

Michael Wacha says that he isn't feeling quite right physically and Mike Matheny says the Cardinals' decision to scratch him from Sunday's start is not health-related.

Dilip Vishwanat

The news of that the St. Louis Cardinals have "paused" (to use manager Mike Matheny's word) Michael Wacha's major-league-pennant-race rehab stint has caused me to worry (more than I already had been) about the young pitcher's health.

What do we know about Wacha's fitness? The Cardinals placed him on the disabled list in June because of a rare shoulder injury: a stress reaction. Only Brandon McCarthy has had such an injury before and his proved chronic.

The Cardinals were rather cautious with Wacha. While on the DL, the righty underwent multiple MRIs so doctors could examine his shoulder health. Wacha also lifted weights in an effort to strengthen the muscle areas around his shoulder. Ultimately, he began throwing. By the time he took the ball in Milwaukee, there were no reported health concerns in addition to those that will surround the young righty for the rest of his career because of the shoulder condition than landed him on the DL for the bulk of the 2014 season.

Wacha had to pitch sometime if he is ever to pitch again and he was medically cleared to do so at the time he took the ball in Milwaukee. The rush wasn't in the timetable of his return to pitching post-injury, but in his return to the majors. Instead of the typical minor-league rehab stint, the Cardinals promoted him to the major-league rotation after just one start in Double-A. This was in part due to the end of the minor-league season (though Wacha could've notched a second rehab start with Memphis in the Triple-A playoffs) and the Cardinals' need for a starter in St. Louis (though Marco Gonzales or Tyler Lyons could've filled the void left by the removal of Justin Masterson from the rotation). It was clear that the Cardinals calculated that Wacha at something less than 100% gave them a better chance than their other options. Wacha was going to throw competitively one way or the other and the Cardinals decided they wanted those pitches to occur for St. Louis, in the pennant race.

With that as our backdrop we must also recognize that, in regards to the Cardinals' decision to bench Wacha rather have him start against the Rockies on Sunday, we as fans are largely in the dark about Wacha's current level of physical health. Neither you nor I know how Wacha's shoulder feels today, just like we didn't know how it felt back in June. That is, until the Cardinals told us that not only did Wacha's shoulder not feel very good, but it had suffered a stress reaction to repeatedly throwing a baseball—the reason the Cardinals employ the young man—that necessitated placing him on the DL. That's so often how these things work. We know little-to-nothing until the team shares something with us.

On Friday, the Cardinals started sharing information with us.

From Brian Stull at STL Baseball Weekly (where you can also listen to audio of Wacha's remarks in their entirety):

"I wouldn’t say anything’s wrong, just not feeling the way it should," answered Michael Wacha if he was concerned about the issues leading the St. Louis Cardinals to remove him from Sunday’s scheduled start.

"I told them I can pitch through it, I guess it’s just not worth the risk," said Wacha, who is not dealing with any particular pain or discomfort. "Just altogether–just coming out of the starts, just wasn’t feeling the way it needed to be feeling."

Wacha threw a side session yesterday and has made two starts since his return from the disabled list on September 4th and noted the difficulty to bounce back between the two outings.

"I’d say that kind of Spring Training stuff–whenever things in Spring Training happen, obviously you kind of slow things down a little bit. I feel that’s kind of what’s going on here."

Whereas Wacha's statement focused on how he felt, Matheny's announcement of the decision focused more on how Wacha's performance looked:

"We’re gonna have Marco Gonzales start on Sunday’s game," shared the St. Louis Cardinals manager on the change away from Michael Wacha getting that start. "To us, he doesn’t look quite right. He’s coming in in kind of a different scenario where we’re trying to build him up and typically, if he doesn’t look right you take more rest and we had the opportunity to do that."

A summary of the entirety of Matheny's remarks, which can be heard at the above-linked STL Baseball Weekly post by Brian Stull:

  • Despite the allusions Wacha made to a physical issue when talking to the press, Matheny said the decision to pause Wacha is not health-related. According to Matheny, the Cardinals did not decide to start Gonzales over Wacha on Sunday because Wacha's shoulder is exhibiting symptoms indicating a recurrence of the stress reaction that landed him on DL in June. The Cards are not shutting Wacha down permanently. The Cardinals had not even discussed Wacha undergoing an MRI as of Friday afternoon.
  • The decision is performance-related. Matheny stated that the Cardinals opted to give Wacha a bit more rest because he just hasn't looked right during his two major-league starts after being activated from the DL. Of specific concern was Wacha's inability to consistently spot his fastball. Right now, it's just a break that will hopefully help Wacha develop sharpness with his pitches.

Matheny's explanation on Friday for the team's decision to bench Wacha stands in some contrast with Wacha's statements to the media on the same subject. It also conflicts with Matheny's actions and words in Cincinnati when the manager was apparently incapable of recognizing the lackluster nature of Wacha's pitching during and after his start against the Reds. The manager opted to have Wacha bat for himself in the fourth and pitch the fifth inning, then defended the decision after the game as being in the Cards' best win-now interests. From Derrick Goold's St. Louis Post-Dispatch gamer:

"The priority is not getting his pitch count up," Matheny said. "The priority is giving us our best chance to win. Like most nights that involves our starter going deeper. We didn’t have the option of going seven with our starter but we have the option to possibly go five."

Five innings was the short-term goal.

As they try to win, they are also playing a longer game with Wacha.

"Part of the process," Matheny said. "But that’s not our priority. Our priority is to win the game and hope that we can use every one of our guys to do it. Getting him closer to being right, we believe, is going to help us be better as a club."

Matheny claims he stuck with Wacha because a fifth inning from the righty would've given the Cards a better chance to defeat the Reds that game. But Wacha looked early on in his start like a pitcher who needed an early hook and the Cards bullpen was overloaded with arms due to the expanded September roster. The club didn't need an inning from Wacha that Gonzales (or a reliever) couldn't have provided. Further underscoring this reality, the Cards will try and get five or more innings from Gonzales on Sunday instead of Wacha—ostensibly because, in the wake of Wacha's performance in his first two starts post-activation, it will give them the best chance to win.

Matheny's Friday assessment of Wacha's performance against the Brewers and Reds as bad (while accurate) also stands at odds with the decision to try to wring another inning out of the youngster against Cincinnati and the notion, as explained after the game Tuesday night, that throwing Wacha for a fifth inning gave the Cards the best chance to win. I suppose it's possible that Matheny somehow thought Wacha looked good against the Reds during the game. Maybe the view from the dugout led him to a different conclusion than the one I reached watching the behind-the-pitcher camera view on the HD television in my friend's living room. It could be that only after watching that same video was Matheny (a widely renowned pitcher savant during his catching days as a big-leaguer) able to recognize that Wacha looked rather bad against the Reds. But that seems unlikely.

What's more, Gonzales took a trust fall, an act that has become a rite of passage into the St. Louis relief corps, on Friday just before Matheny announced that Wacha wouldn't start on Sunday. It seems that if the decision to bench Wacha were based on performance as opposed to the righthander's fitness, it would've been made sooner and Gonzales would've been notified that he would start, which would have left no reason for the southpaw to take part in the bullpen trust fall initiation.

There's a disconnect between Matheny's actions during the Reds game, his comments after that game, what he said to the media on Friday in St. Louis, and Wacha's explanation for missing Sunday's start. All of this indicates that the Cards probably based the decision to bench Wacha more on how the righty felt physically after his start against the Reds and Thursday's bullpen session than how he pitched in Cincinnati and during the bullpen. And that's cause for concern in Cardinaldom.