Many people believe that the Cardinals should play better in the second half. Michael Wacha’s pending improvement should be one of the reasons why.
By now, you have probably heard a lot about how the Cardinals will be better in the second half. In fact, you’re probably sick of hearing it and just want to see it happen. Nevertheless, I am offering a reason for that turnaround in Michael Wacha. He won’t be the only reason, of course, but I think he will be one of them. Wacha should improve in the second half, and here’s why:
Last month, I wrote about how some Cardinals pitchers have gotten unlucky with runners on base, and that applies to Wacha especially. Pitchers generally maintain a stable strand rate throughout their careers, but Wacha’s has dropped a lot this year. He is currently only stranding 66.2 percent of runners, while his previous career high was 73.8 percent in 2014.
Pitchers only get slightly worse with runners on base because they are going from the full windup. However, there is no huge drop. Wacha’s pitching with runners on should regress back to be more in line with what he does when the bases are empty.
Michael Wacha has 6 strikeouts (5 swinging) already and has only thrown 51 pitches.
— Chris Tunno (@TunesSTL) July 9, 2016
In addition to getting unlucky with runners on base, Wacha is also outputting his ERA. His ERA currently stands at 4.36, but his FIP is a much better 3.70. Wacha has hung right around that range in FIP for most of his young career, so he isn’t doing anything significantly better or worse this year on the mound. His strikeout rate and walk rate are right where they usually are for him, and he isn’t giving up more homers.
Sometimes a player underperforms relative to his FIP because he isn’t managing contact well. In other words, he is giving up many fly balls and hard hits. That has not been the case with Wacha this year. While his soft hit rate is usually higher, his hard hit rate is where it was last year. Fangraphs shows that he has given up more balls hit in the “medium” category. In other words, he isn’t really getting hit harder than he has throughout his career.
As for the fly balls, Wacha’s ground ball rate is at a respectable 45.6 percent, so that isn’t the problem. His line drive rate is a bit higher, but they aren’t hard liners. Because Wacha’s hard hit rate has been stable, he isn’t running the risk of giving up extra bases on those extra liners. Those few more hits are not the cause of his higher ERA.
The low strand rate is really at the root of his problems.
Once he gets that in check, which he should, he’ll resemble the pitcher you saw last year. If you think that a good pitcher wouldn’t have such an off year in terms of stranding runners, check out Corey Kluber. The Indians’ ace owns a 3.61 ERA despite a 2.97 FIP due mostly to a strand rate seven percent lower than his career average.
Given all of the factors that indicate that Wacha really hasn’t changed as a pitcher, I expect him to pitch about a half-run better per nine innings in the second half. If he goes another 70-80 innings this year, then the Cardinals will earn an eight or nine run improvement. That is very close to equaling the value of a win, so the Cardinals should gain a game without doing anything different.
It’s hard to sit and watch your team struggle when it shouldn’t. I agree that they are better than their record and that they should play better in the second half. I also think it is important to recognize where that improvement will come from and what to change. Wacha should be part of the solution next half. He may not have the traditional stats to back it up yet, but he’ll get there. Look for the 25 year-old to have a bounce-back second half.
Photo captured by: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports