What’s Worrisome with Wacha?
Michael Wacha, drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals in the 2012 draft, was at one point regarded as the Cardinal’s future ace. In his rookie season, Wacha went 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA. In addition, Wacha was dominant in the NLCS and NLDS of that year’s World Series run, winning the NLCS MVP with a 0.00 ERA over 13.2 innings. However, at the end of the 2015 season, and throughout the beginning of this season, Wacha has become a much less efficient pitcher. This season so far batter are hitting .258 off of Wacha (compared to .219 in 2013 and .234 in 2014). Sure Wacha has had some great starts recently, such as his start on May 3 against the Phillies (8.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 8 K), but has struggled with being consistent and seems to be off more than on. No matter how much I try to convince myself that this is simply a “sophomore”, more like “senior”, slump, and that Wacha will return to his dominant ways, certain statistics and details about Wacha’s regression concern me about his ability to rebound from it.
Wacha, Cardinals stumble as Pirates roll to 10-5 win https://t.co/pI3vT6DyD4
— STL Cardinals News (@STLCardsNews) May 9, 2016
Michael Wacha’s recent slump is something to be concerned about
It is apparent that the coaching staff of the St. Louis Cardinals are very focused on Wacha’s down-hill plane; maximizing the vertical displacement of his pitches. It is a topic that is commonly talked about during Cardinal’s broadcasts and post-game analyses. The following graph of average vertical release position by month and pitch (provided by Brooks Baseball) visualizes both a shorter release point trend in the 2014 season, and a trend towards heightening the release point during the 2015 and 2016 season:
The pitching staff of the Cardinal’s most likely saw the decline of release position during the 2014 season and attempted to fix Wacha’s mechanics. What may be overlooked is its impact on the horizontal movement of his pitches:
The above graphs show a correlation, during the 2016 season, of an increasing vertical release point with a diminishment of horizontal movement. The question becomes whether or not this is a case of causation or correlation. Looking at it from a completely physical standpoint, ball movement is largely based on the horizontal release point of the pitch. A pitch released from further away, horizontally, from the plate allows for the pitch to have more horizontal movement on its path from the mound to the plate.
But wait, Wacha in the 2013 season had both high release point and large horizontal movement, so the impact on horizontal movement in 2016 can’t solely be due to increasing vertical release point, right?
This is true, however looking at the graphs comparing his horizontal release points from 2013 to 2016 (with the observation that Wacha has not changed where he stands on the mound) we can see that recently he has started throwing the ball from closer to his body (the more negative the release point value, the farther away from his body):
This makes me think that the response to Wacha’s funk has been to focus solely on the vertical release point, without focusing on maximizing horizontal release point by elbow extension. There is no doubt that the downward plane Wacha possesses is of great value and is a great asset to him. However, horizontal movement is important as well and shouldn’t be overlooked. The more Wacha can get his cutter to cut, curveball to curve horizontally, and changeup fade, the more effective he’ll be; the more his pitches are distinguishable, the better each will be. One fundamental problem here is that his fastball, cutter, and changeup have recently become much more similar in their horizontal movement patterns.
Wacha, not being a plus-fastball guy, needs not only to be able to finesse the strike zone, but also be effective in changing speeds and spin/curves of his pitches. The contact% of Wacha has increased from 76% to 83.2% from 2013 to 2016, possibly hinting towards Wacha’s pitches movement becoming more predictable. Wacha still is an above average pitcher, but decreased movement on his pitches is a huge concern moving forward, and in order to combat it I believe that either his mechanics must be tweaked to increase movement or Wacha must learn a new pitch and rely mostly on changing speeds if he wants to become the dominant pitcher he was “destined to be”.