In February of this year, Alex Reyes underwent an MRI exam on his elbow that would reveal the need for Tommy John surgery. On that same day, the Cardinals were told they had won the arbitration hearing for Michael Wacha. It was a tension filled process, considering it was the first time the team had gone to a hearing room to settle an arbitration case since 1999.
A quick note for those who are unaware how arbitration works. A player with greater than 3, but less than 6, years of service time is eligible for salary arbitration. The team and player each propose a salary and they only go before a panel of arbitrators if they can’t reach a decision. This is typically an awkward scenario because the team will submit the lower salary. To his credit, Mozeliak handled it well with Wacha a year ago, attributing it to the business of baseball, nothing more.
Before Friday’s deadline, the Cardinals tendered a contract to Michael Wacha for his second year of arbitration. Whether or not the two parties will end up before a panel again this year is relatively insignificant. However, it is worth considering what Wacha’s role will be for the Cardinals in 2018.
As of now, it appears he will start the season in the rotation. The guaranteed starters look to be Martinez, Wainwright, Wacha, and Weaver. However, Wacha could be used in the bullpen. Bernie Miklasz proposed the idea in October based on the success of Dodger starter-turned-reliever Kenta Maeda. He made some interesting statistical points you can read about here.
He presents many solid pieces of evidence. Yes, Wacha is best against the lineup the first time through, but that is generally true league-wide due to both pitcher fatigue and familiarity growing over the course of a game. Perhaps the most interesting piece of evidence Miklasz gave was in one short sentence towards the end of the piece in reference to Wacha’s fastball-change combination. He said it was “ideal” for short relief.
The aspect of Wacha’s fastball-change combination that is so exciting is his growing mastery of the release point. Here is a graph of the horizontal release points for Wacha’s fastball and changeup in 2017.
As you can see, his release points started off pretty close in April, grew apart in June, but ended up in the same exact place in September. What’s more, they were extremely close in August as well, hinting at a concerted effort to replicate release points for these different pitches.
This development doesn't necessarily mean Wacha should be relegated to the bullpen. It simply shows that Wacha is improving and can be more effective if he continues to replicate his release points, especially for these two pitches, which differ in velocity by almost 8 miles per hour and doing so consistently to close the season.
The debate about whether or not Wacha should have a relief role hinges on the question of maximizing his value based on the roster composition of the 2018 team. With what arrangement can the total value of the pitchers be maximized? If the other options for the starting rotation are Martinez, Wainwright, Weaver, Flaherty, and Gant, it will not make sense to put Wacha in the bullpen.
However, if the Cardinals can acquire a quality starting pitcher this offseason, perhaps moving Wacha to the bullpen when Alex Reyes is ready to return to the rotation would be the right move. One possible scenario is using Wacha in the regular season as a starter, but moving him to the bullpen for the postseason. We have seen the growing use and significance of the bullpen in postseason play and the addition of Wacha would certainly add value to what might be already be a formidable group. This would fill the need for a strong bullpen in October and allow Alex Reyes to keep his innings down over the course of the season.
The fact that we can even have this debate shows his versatility. Whatever the final strategy is determined to be, Michael Wacha is still a developing player, who provides a considerable amount of value in the starting rotation and the bullpen.