Four pitches. Of the 83 pitches Michael Wacha threw in his 2017 debut start, I am going to focus primarily on four (4.82%) of them. Why, you wonder? Well, it appears Wacha displayed a never-before-seen sinker against the National League Central-leading Reds. With the Cardinals winning one game each in their first two home series, it’s not easy to find exciting things to write about, and from a constructive criticism standpoint, it’s not possible for me to top Craig Edwards’ piece on the manager from last August. Thus, as this site’s resident pitch analyst, I’ve decided to focus on a positive from the first time through the rotation: Wacha’s repertoire development.
Over the offseason, I wrote fondly about the possibility of Wacha scrapping the cutter and what needs to be done for him to rediscover the changeup. One start into 2017, the cutter (unfortunately) remains part of his repertoire, but the changeup looked better than it has in years, leading to whiffs on 50% of the swings against it. Honestly, one reason the cutter remains part of Wacha’s repertoire is that he doesn’t yet have a consistent third pitch to replace it. Sure, he loves going to the fourseamer (56.91%) and changeup (19.98%), but the curveball (10.39%) hasn’t yet developed, and a fifth option just presented itself for the first time in the sinker.
On its own, here is what Wacha’s sinker looks like in a fifth-inning at bat versus Patrick Kivlehan (he’s a real person, I checked both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, to be sure), courtesy of the always-helpful @cardinalsgifs:
As you can see, the 94.0 MPH sinker fell just below the zone for a ball. Yet, prior to its late downward movement, the pitch, at the very least, looked like it could land in the bottom of the strike zone. That temptation in itself will often lead to weak contact from opposing hitters, as they envision the pitch riding up in the zone like his more frequented fourseamer. Individually, it’s hard to tell a pitch’s place in a given repertoire without, you know, looking at the other pitches in the repertoire.
Fortunately, despite having only four sinkers to choose from, we have an at bat in which Wacha worked off the sinker perfectly — hence providing us with an example for the pitch’s in his repertoire. Unlike the cutter (right to left, or “glove-side”), the horizontal movement of a sinker (left to right, or “arm-side”) better complements the movement profile of a changeup (arm-side). In fact, when released correctly, sinkers and changeups begin on identical paths toward home plate, eventually diverging due to differences in both velocity and spin (remember, lower spin = more drop). Take a look at this three-pitch strikeout of Arismendy Alcantara (BrooksBaseball At Bat):
Wacha starts Alcantara out with a painted 92.9 MPH sinker for a called first-pitch strike. He then makes Alcantara look downright foolish for strike two with an 88.0 MPH changeup just below the zone. Notice how the royal blue trail of the changeup follows the sinker’s yellow trail almost perfectly out of Wacha’s hand? This is paramount in the pitch’s natural deception and helps lead to hopeless swings and misses, as visualized above. With two strikes, and a terrible swing for strike two, Wacha followed Yadier Molina’s target by burying the third pitch (another changeup) in the dirt, and sure enough, it worked. It worked because Wacha took command of the at bat with a first-pitch strike. Not only that, but it was a first-pitch strike that followed a similar movement profile to strikes two and three.
Bottom line, I’m not trying to overstate the importance of four (!) pitches. But, at the same time, it cannot be overstated how valuable a sinker could be to Wacha’s current repertoire. Here’s to hoping it wasn’t a mere aberration, and Wacha is indeed working on a sinker (if there exists quotes from Wacha on the pitch, please include them below). Throwing more sinkers, at the expense of his cutter usage, would be a positive, tunnel-savvy development for the 25-year-old.