The biggest bright spot for the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals is the starting rotation. It has vastly outperformed expectations. Most of the rotation has been talked about all year, but there is one pitcher whose name has hardly been mentioned at all. It’s time that Michael Wacha was properly recognized.
For obvious reasons, names like Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, and Miles Mikolas have garnered a lot of attention. St. Louis Cardinals fans, mainstream media, and even the blogosphere have been laser-focused on these pitchers for good reason.
Waino might have seen his career come to a close. Weaver has struggled at times in a year that was supposed to be his coming out party. Martinez was having a career year before a lat strain sidelined him. Reyes had his season debut cut short with a lat strain of his own. Mikolas is looking like an All-Star at least and an early Cy Young candidate at best.
With over one-fourth of the season gone, Michael Wacha has quietly put together a season for the ages. If you don’t believe me just look at the stats. Wacha currently holds a 7-1 record with a 2.41 ERA. His near no-hitter of the Pirates on June 3rd was nothing short of masterful.
Wacha’s seven wins tie him for second in the NL. His 2.41 ERA is good for 7th best in the NL among qualified starters. Yes, that puts Wacha ahead of every Cardinals starter not named Carlos Martinez.
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Wacha’s 3.77 xFIP suggests that there may be some ERA regression ahead. However, there are some other peripherals that seem to suggest this performance is sustainable.
Wacha boasts a career-low 0.57 HR/9 so far this year. This is supported by his 7.7% HR/FB rate which is down from the 11.6% the two previous years. If there is a major concern with Wacha it has to be his walk rate at 3.57 BB/9. That’s countered by his 41.2% ground ball rate.
So what does all of this mean? Essentially it means that Wacha is walking batters at a career-high rate, but is managing to keep them from scoring. His career low .242 BABIP might suggest regression as well, but there’s something else to consider.
Wacha has greatly improved his pitch selection this season. While leaning on his fastball more than 50% of the time over the course of his career, he is only throwing it 44.7% of the time this year.
Wacha has given up some fastball usage to throw more curves (15.5%) and changeups (21.9%), while keeping his cutter usage about the same at 17.9%. He’s using a more balanced approach to attack hitters and keep them guessing.
What Wacha has done by changing this approach is keeping hitters off balance. While his batted ball profile hasn’t changed much, I believe that Wacha’s pitch selection is giving hitters more to think about.
Batters are still hitting him as hard as they always have, but Wacha is inducing more infield flies and pulled balls. Batters seem to be getting ahead of the changeup and pulling the ball slightly more than usual.
One has to wonder if pitching coach Mike Maddux‘s high fastball approach is also helping Wacha by getting batters to hit more pop-ups when they do hit fly balls. Either way, Michael Wacha looks like a different pitcher this year than he had the last two years.
The Cardinals rotation has been absolutely stellar in 2018. Michael Wacha is a big reason why. If the Cardinals are to make a push for the division and go far in the postseason then Michael Wacha’s sustained success will be a huge part of it.
It’s past time for more people to recognize just exactly what he means to this rotation and this team.