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Michael Wacha takes a small, but promising step in second start of season

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It may have come against the Milwaukee Brewers (the likely last-place finisher in the National League Central), but Michael Wacha's start in the home opener on Monday afternoon was, in a word, promising. It was a start in which he flashed the high-end potential we enjoyed watching back in late 2013, after witnessing his meteoric rise through the farm system. Other than the obvious detail of facing a lesser opponent from his first start (the Piratesgame recap here), what was Wacha able to do in his start three days ago in order to be successful? First, let's take a look at Wacha's squeaky clean line from the box score:

Wacha's Line from Monday's Start

6.0 4 0 1 7 0.00 1.34

Basic PitchF/x Information

Remember: Regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.

Pitch Type Times Thrown (%) Velocity (MPH) Dragless Horiz. Mov. (in.) Whiff %
Fourseamer 65 (69%) 93.5 -5.62 4.6%
Changeup 13 (14%) 85.7 -8.08 15.4%
Curveball 11 (12%) 75.5 8.35 9.1%
Cutter 5 (5%) 89.8 -0.47 0%

What is most notable about the entire start is that Wacha only went to the cutter five times (for necessary perspective, he threw it 21 times against the Pirates). If you recall, back in 2013, Wacha barely even had a cutter in his repertoire, throwing it a grand total of 27 times (or 1.78% of his total pitches). Instead, he focused on pummeling the areas in and around the zone with his fastball (64.22%) and keeping hitters off balance with his already-renowned changeup (26.67%). When hitters caught onto his fastball-changeup combination (which, admittedly, was not often in 2013), he was able to sprinkle in a below-average curveball if necessary.

In 2014, he began throwing the cutter more frequently (roughly 11% of the time). And in theory, the cutter can be a highly effective pitch, especially at inducing weak, on-the-ground contact, but at the same time, it generally doesn't mesh too well with a pitcher heavily reliant on and effective with a fourseamer and a hard changeup. Rather, an average to above-average curveball (breaking much more drastically in the opposite direction of both the fourseamer and the changeup) is a much more desirable complementary piece.

This is exactly what we saw on Monday. The curveball projects, at best, to be an above-average pitch for Wacha. It will almost certainly never be considered his "out" pitch. And that's fine. Its role in his success will be to not only offset the movement (glove-side versus arm-side) seen from his two primary pitches but also the velocity. When Wacha consistently throws fourseamer/changeup/cutter, especially later on in outings, hitters can expect pitches to be in the 85-92 MPH range. While a seven MPH difference is more than enough to keep a hitter off balance, it simply does not have the same effect as a 10-17 MPH difference seen with a curveball. If a hitter has two strikes and has the approach of "I am going to make contact at all costs," there is a good chance he will be able to adjust to a seven MPH difference. It is much more difficult to adjust to a 17 MPH difference, especially if pitches are being properly sequenced.

Fourseamer Location

Wacha FB Location

Bottom 2 Rows Middle Row Top 2 Rows
23 21 21

As you can see, those believing that Wacha lived "down in the zone" with his fourseamer more frequently on Monday are not technically wrong (23 versus 21 and 21), but given the sample size we are dealing with, it is essentially an even split across the three zones. However, pitch location is a little more complicated with a pitcher like Wacha, who, at 6'6" with an average vertical release point of 6'10" on his fourseamer, is able to put an insane amount of "tilt" on his pitches.

Thus, many of the pitches that appear in the middle row may actually "feel" like being in the bottom two rows for the hitter, and frankly, that is really all Wacha cares about out there on the mound. However, it is less than ideal that just over 10% of his fourseamers landed in the "middle-middle" zone, his most frequently-visited zone on the entire heat map, so going forward, it would be better if Wacha could work a handful of these pitches in virtually any direction (but preferably down).

Monday's start was a small, but promising step for the 24-year-old Wacha. For his sake and the Cardinals', let's hope he can build on the positives of this outing and get even better going forward. Given the big hit taken to the starting rotation's reinforcements yesterday, the Cardinals are going to need a long, quality season from their 2012 first-round draft pick. A long, quality season should be centered on throwing the fourseamer, unleashing the 2013-version of his changeup (it shall return if he is able to command his fastball), and further developing the curveball. The cutter, while there may be a time and opponent for it, should not be considered a priority at this point.