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Michael Wacha a rare positive in tough start for Cardinals

01 OCTOBER 2016: St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha (52) delivers a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bush Stadium in St. Louis Missouri. (Photo by Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportswire)
(Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportswire)

There’s a lot to be disappointed about with the start to the season for the St. Louis Cardinals, but Michael Wacha has been one of the major positives. After throwing only 138.1 innings last season with a 5.09 ERA and spending some time on the disabled list, Wacha got a chance to earn a spot in the rotation this spring when it was announced that Alex Reyes would miss the entire season after Tommy John Surgery.

So far, so good for Wacha.

Through three starts, the tall right-hander has thrown 18.2 innings with 17 strikeouts, five walks, a 2.41 ERA and 3.98 FIP. He’s gone at least six innings in each start, throwing especially well against the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates—both divisional foes.

Wacha has a history of shoulder trouble, a condition that took a chunk out of his 2014 season and popped up again last August. At the time, even the Cardinals’ general manager wouldn’t give a full, public endorsement for his 24-year-old pitcher.

“We know what. We don’t know exactly why,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “Ultimately that’s what we have to work on between now and next season. When you’re looking at the connection between when this occurs to someone you’re trying to get 200 innings out of — I don’t think we’re comfortable making that bet long term at this point.”

Ouch.

Coming into spring training, the pitcher was determined to make it through an entire season again. Wacha worked hard in the offseason, not just on the mound and in the weight room but also learning about his body.

“I know a lot more muscles in there now,” Wacha said. “I know what ones I need to work. I know that everything is important.”

It’s not only the injuries that motivate Wacha to find a way to stay on the mound. It’s also the knowledge of how good he can be. His postseason performance back in 2013, when a 22-year-old Wacha carried the Cardinals to the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, shows the kind of talent hiding in his arm when he’s right.

“It was a season I wouldn’t be very proud of, for sure,” Wacha said. “That’s the motivation that gets you through the offseason. That’s what you think about through all your workouts. You don’t want to have that type of season. You don’t. At times you feel like you let your team down.”

Wacha is healthy again, and beyond that, he’s throwing well. After averaging 95 mph on his fastball in 2015 and then under 94 mph in 2016, he’s back up closer to 95 mph again in the early-going this season. He’s even added a new pitch, throwing a two-seam fastball that works as a complement to his changeup—Wacha’s best pitch.

Compared to 2015, the last time Wacha was fully healthy, his four-seam fastball usage has gone down and in its place, he’s throwing the new two-seamer. The results are too small to make conclusions, given that a 7.4 percent usage rate over three games equals out to 21 pitches thrown, but it’s been an effective change so far. Batters are swinging and missing at Wacha’s changeup at an absurd 26 percent rate in his three games.

But is this version of Wacha here to stay?

His history is to get off to a great start, only to have problems arise later in the season. His velocity trend is to start relatively well, only to see it start to trail off as the season goes along. The same goes for his stats, which are generally great in the first half but awful down the stretch.

2013-2017

Innings

ERA

K/9

BB/9

First Half

339.1

3.39

7.8

2.5

Second Half

170.1

4.28

7.9

3.4

Even in his healthy season of 2015, the first and second-half splits were extreme. On June 4, Wacha threw seven innings in a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on the road. He allowed just one earned run, striking out five batters and walking none. On that day, he had a 2.18 ERA for the first-place Cardinals.

But Wacha started 19 more games, throwing 111 innings with a 4.14 ERA—including a 7.88 ERA in five September starts, while opposing batters posted a .963 OPS against him. The Cards were knocked out in the NLDS by their biggest rival, the Chicago Cubs, with Wacha starting the pivotal third game. With the series tied, 1-1, Wacha allowed four runs in 4.1 innings, giving up three walks and six hits—including three home runs.

Wacha is crucial to this season to St. Louis. Without Reyes, the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect, the rotation is left thin and relying heavily on their ace, Carlos Martinez, in addition to Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake and Lance Lynn. There are serious questions about everyone in the rotation outside of Martinez.

The new pitch, the raised velocity, and the fresh start to 2017 might be all that Michael Wacha needed to get his career back on track. So far, there’s no sign of the shoulder issues that have dogged him in the past. But given that we could’ve said that at the start of each of the last two seasons, the best course of action might be to continue with caution.

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