Three starts into 2015, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha has already outdueled Johnny Cueto twice and Max Scherzer once. This shaped up to be quite an April for the 25-year-old right-hander entering his second "full" season with the big league club. In each one of these starts, Wacha went at least six innings (6.1, 7.0, 7.0) and allowed only one run. Of course, it has been only three starts, and one must remember that last season included 78 days on the disabled list due to a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder. Either way, here is a look at his statistics thus far in 2015:
As you can see, Wacha's earned run average (ERA) is sparkling, and his walk rate is down ~2.5% from where it was in 2013 (7.3%) and 2014 (7.4%). However, his fielding independent pitching (FIP), combined with his near perfect left on base (LOB) rate, shows that his ERA is likely unsustainably low and that he is not striking out nearly as many hitters as we had grown accustomed to over the last two seasons (down ~6% from 2014 and ~10% from 2013).
The sexy adjustment many will want to talk about is the refinement of his curveball to a point where he feels comfortable throwing it more often and in any count. In all honesty, his curveball is at a point in his development as a major league pitcher where its usage rate is just about right (10.95%). In my opinion, the sustainability of his success more significantly lies in his ability to command the fastball. I am not talking about control here, either. Control refers to whether or not a pitcher can throw strikes, and Wacha's walk rate (4.9%) shows that this has not yet been an issue in 2015. Command refers to being able to consistently hit designated spots in the zone (up, down, in, and out).
Initially, I was thoroughly impressed with Wacha's outdueling of Scherzer on Thursday. Now, before I get any further, let me make it clear that I am still impressed by what we have seen from Wacha so far this season (especially considering how he looked after returning from the disabled list in 2014). From what I could see during the live broadcast against the Nationals, it appeared that the downward plane (or "tilt") on his fastball and changeup was back. This is something Derrick Goold wrote about during spring training, but seeing it consistently translate to regular season games is especially comforting. Standing 6'6" on a 10" pitcher's mound, it is only wise to use downward planing of pitches to his advantage, especially given that he is primarily a fastball-changeup pitcher.
That being said, I wanted to double check fastball command, so I fired up Wacha's start on MLB.TV and rewatched all 95 pitches he threw in the game. I documented (and verified with BrooksBaseball) 43 fourseam fastballs. Technically speaking, 24 of them went for strikes (55.8%), which in a vacuum is pretty good, but I only classified 15 of the 43 as hitting Cruz's mitt/target (~35%). Admittedly, I was slightly generous on a few of them as well, especially in instances where the batter swung the bat. While we do not yet have a baseline for comparison, I feel like 35% is lower than what is desired from a #3 starting pitcher.
After watching the GIF once, focus on the mitt of Tony Cruz the second time around. While BrooksBaseball shows that this pitch was indeed a little below the strike zone, it was extremely close (meaning it probably could have gone either way). Despite a pretty good framing technique, Cruz did not do enough to help his pitcher out. Never once throughout Wacha's entire windup did Cruz set a good target with his mitt. In fact, both Cruz's glove hand and body (from his legs to his shoulders to his head) were moving for the entirety of Wacha's windup.
When it comes to setting a good target as a catcher, I am not necessarily calling for a fully open glove face as often seen in Little League. Then again, as you can see in a GIF by Fangraphs, Jonathan Lucroy sometimes uses this exact technique, and it truly is a thing of beauty. Another technique deployed by Lucroy is a stiff wrist, set prior to the start of the windup that allows for a target with a noticeable surface area facing out toward the pitcher. Unfortunately, upon further review, neither one of these techniques were used consistently by Cruz during Thursday's game. While the majority of the "blame" should be placed on Wacha, I do believe Cruz's poor targets had a non-zero effect on Wacha's fastball command.
Now, for some eye candy to close out the article...
Painting the corner with a fourseam fastball against Ian Desmond
Again, Cruz is moving quite a bit during Wacha's windup, but this, unlike the 1-0 pitch to Denard Span above, is a situation I can understand. With an 0-2 count, catchers often want to disguise the intended pitch location until the very last moment so they wait to set their target. In terms of the target itself, Cruz kind of uses the stiff wrist technique for a general pitch location, but should Wacha have hit the spot set by Cruz, it would have been a ball low and moved the count to 1-2. Wacha was able to freeze Desmond with 94 MPH fastball down and in because the set-up pitch was a 94 MPH fastball up and away—successfully changing the eye level of the slugging shortstop.
Blowing a fourseam fastball by Bryce Harper
Here, despite Cruz flashing a decent target low in the zone (similar to the "Little League" technique referenced above), Wacha still missed his spot by at least two feet. However, he missed in a "safe" location, an area where Harper has shown to be especially susceptible to swinging and missing.
Catching Jose Lobaton out in front with a devastating changeup
Wacha went with a unique changeup-changeup-changeup finishing sequence to get Lobaton. Wacha was able to catch Lobaton off-balance because he started him off with a cutter (88.6 MPH) and a fastball (92.8 MPH), leaving both pitches as options to return to for that third strike. However, why stray away from what has been successful? With good reason, the changeup continues to be one of Wacha's most-used weapons against left-handed batters (.063 ISO in 143 at bats).
Michael Wacha has been good in 2015, but understandably, he has not yet been great. Given his peripherals (K%, LOB%, FIP) and the fact that his fastball command is far from above average at this point, I would not prematurely jump to classifying him as the guy to take over the role of ace now that it appears Adam Wainwright will be out for the remainder of the season. His fastball velocity is back (Thursday's game: Averaged 93.9 MPH, maxed out at 95.4 MPH) and hopefully with more starts and a more stable receiver in Yadier Molina, the command will return, too. For a pitcher reliant on fastball-changeup sequences for success, fastball command is supremely important. This is definitely something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.