Tormented by recurring problems with the scapula bone in his right shoulder, a debilitating condition that’s messing with his career, Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha went with a different training approach this past offseason. He worked with weights to strengthen the areas that support the scapula. The Cardinals seem genuinely pleased by the results.
“I think he’s in a really good spot,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said Wednesday. “He had a very good offseason. His goal was to add strength in the upper body. And after meeting with him this morning, he feels really good about where he’s at. And so we’re excited by that. And as you look at the depth question, now it’s a great opportunity (for Wacha.)”
Wacha had an interesting day Tuesday. He lost his arbitration case with the Cardinals but likely won a spot in their rotation.
Wacha will make $2.77 million in 2017 (the team’s submitted figure) instead of collecting his requested $3.2 million. But on the same day, Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect Alex Reyes had to withdraw from pitching because of intensifying elbow pain.
The diagnoses was unfortunate: a ruptured elbow ligament, imminent surgery, and a rehabilitation process that will prevent Reyes from pitching this season.
The powerful Reyes was probably headed to the bullpen, anyway. But coming into camp Jupiter, Wacha and Reyes were set to compete against each other for a precious rotation spot. With Reyes out until 2018 or indefinitely, the rotation gig almost certainly will be claimed by Wacha … as long as he’s healthy. And he can keep the spot as long as he stays strong over the final two, three months.
If fatigue doesn’t creep back into his right shoulder, Wacha can reestablish himself as a pitcher of note. And that’s the challenge for Wacha. When Wacha threw for the first time this spring (Wednesday), he apparently looked terrific. Folks immediately and predictably overreacted.
No one should be surprised by Wacha’s vigor in mid-February. He’s had an entire offseason to rehab, work, renew, and get ready. With Wacha, the real tests will come later, after the innings accumulate and the shoulder becomes increasingly vulnerable to workload-related stress.
The scapula issue surfaced in 2014, and Wacha was shut down for nearly three months — and wasn’t he same pitcher when he returned in September.
Wacha wasn’t injured per se in 2015, but stamina was a problem. He was pounded for a 6.94 ERA (and a blistering 10 homers) in 28 innings covering his final six starts including a loss to the Cubs in the ’15 NLDS.
After a positive launch to his 2016, Wacha lost effectiveness and had to be shut down again. He declined to a 6.06 ERA over his final 16 starts.
With the scapula working against him, Wacha’s earned-run average has fluctuated accordingly. He went from a 2.78 ERA in 2013, but that’s gone up each season and until inflating to an unsightly 5.09 in 2016.
The glaring signs of shoulder-related fatigue are all over Wacha’s pitching profile:
— Wacha’s strikeout rate dropped to a career-low 18.8 percent in 2016.
— Wacha’s swinging-strike rate — as high as 11.4% in 2013 — fell to a career-worst 8.1% last season.
— Combining the last three seasons Wacha had a 3.39 before the All-Star break and a 5.19 ERA after the break.
— Over the three seasons Wacha was touched for an opponents’ .661 OPS before the All-Star break and an .842 OPS after the break.
— Narrowing the focus to the last two seasons (2015-16), Wacha had a tendency to run out gas, often quickly, in his third time through the opponents’ lineup in a game. Example: the slugging percentage against Wacha was a low .382 in his first trip through the lineup, .395 in his second time through, but jumped to .483 during his third time through.
–– And then there were the homers. In his first two encounters with the opponents’ lineup, Wacha didn’t give up many bombs: an average once every 46 at-bats the first time through … and one HR every 53.7 at-bats the second time around. But in his third navigation through the lineup, Wacha was rocked for a homer every 20 at-bats over ’15 and ’16.
— Combining Wacha’s 2015-2016, here’s what hitters did to him in the sixth inning: .316 average, .365 onbase percentage, .579 slugging percentage, .944 OPS. Ouch.
The scapula issue has affected Wacha’s delivery. Struggling to reach full extension that makes him so towering on the mound and effective, Wacha reduced the number of changeups thrown in a game. And without a consistently cunning changeup working in concert with his four-seam fastball and cutter, Wacha lacked the deception that made his harder pitches more difficult for hitters. The batting average and slugging percentages against Wacha’s fastball and cutter have jumped.
Another big problem: after cutting way down on changeups, the righthanded Wacha became more exposed to RH batters. Over the last two seasons, RH batters have rocked him for a .277 average, .333 OBP and .443 slug in 700 at-bats. Without having to worry so much about Wacha’s tricky changeup, which offset his higher-velocity pitches, RH batters could dig in and look for the fastball or Wacha’s invitingly hittable cutter. (I’m not sure why Wacha throws the cutter as often as he does; the data shows that it’s been a terrible pitch for him.)
I’m not trying to say that Wacha is toast, or that his offseason work will do nothing to help him going forward. But the weakening of the scapula isn’t a common injury. It really compromises pitchers. Another big-league RH, Brandon McCarthy, has been battling the same malady for years, and can’t get past it. There are no simple solutions — or any solutions at all. If the muscle wears down, the pitcher goes down. Wacha is doing everything he can to overcome this, and maybe the offseason weight training work will make a positive difference. But man, it’s a long season. And this will be a substantial challenge for Wacha.
Thanks for reading …