For Cardinals Pitcher Michael Wacha: Another Opportunity and Another Stress Test

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.

Wacha had a 7-7 record with a 5.09 ERA in 2016.

“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 …


Miklasz: A Depressing Start to Spring Training: The Cardinals Lose Pitching Phenom Alex Reyes

  • Christopher Toth

    Begs the question too as to whether the Cards as an organization – Matheny as well as the minor & league managers & coaches – know how to maximize pitching while minimizing injuries.

    Reyes, Maness, Rosenthal, Wacha, Marco, Lynn, etc., and lest we forget, Martinez had issues too last season.

    • flood21

      I knew it would come down to being Matheny’s fault.

      • Christopher Toth

        Then work on your reading and comprehension skills.

        One, I stated it begs the question, not a conclusion.

        Two, I didn’t single out Matheny, but referenced all of the coaching and managerial staff be they minor or major.

        When that many pitchers go down over the course of several reasons, it is a big red flag that begs review.

        • geoff

          You Cub fans should just quit posting in the St Louis paper.

          • Christopher Toth

            Are you really that scared or put off by Cub fans that you can’t go mano to mano with them?

            I’m not.

            Besides, I am a lifetime Cards fan beginning with Gibby … and also was born and bred in St. Charles, grew up as an expat listening to Jack Buck on Armed Forces Radio in Asia, Europe and the Mid East and returned here where I obtained multiple degrees as an alum of Wash U in STL while rooting on Whitey Herzog and the 1982 World Series Championship team.

            I do hate frozen yogurt, Matheny brown-nosers (although on a personal level I respect Matheny as a man and father), and “yes” people who blindly follow every time a pied piper starts blowing out a tune that’s out of step with reality.

        • flood21

          MLB just brought a study out that shows the Cardinals are ranked 16th for TJ surgeries over the last 7 years,so maybe they are doing things right. The review has been done and your question has been answered.

          • Jim Parisi

            16th puts them in the middle of the pack but a lot of MLB pitchers are having a them. Every team wants the 100 mph fastball pitcher so every prospect overthrows and exerts maximum effort. You only have so many throws until it snaps.

          • flood21


          • Christopher Toth

            I agree that 100MPH pitches are highly likely behind many TJs and other shoulder & elbow injuries.

            It also clearly has done a lot of damage to high school age pitchers who aren’t hitting that velocity but nonetheless are overtaxing their age ability shoulders and elbows.

          • Christopher Toth

            Flood, night trying to be difficult here, but no, the answer hasn’t been answered and not nearly enough sufficient data upon which to draw meaningful solutions.

            – Tommy John surgeries are only one measure of tabulating pitching injuries and many such injuries do not result in TJs.

            – Although the study you cite is helpful and informative, we need a lot more context before drawing any conclusions from it.

            E.g., How long has any given pitcher played for the same team prior to having TJ surgery …

            E.g., How many pitchers on any given team opted to wait for TJ surgery and pitched with partial tears?

            E.g., How many pitchers required TJ surgery after leaving one club for another?

            And then subsets such as how long had they played for one organization and how long after leaving that organization did they require TJ.

            E.g., Is there a correlation between TJs and win/loss records and/or teams that perennially make it into post season and/or perennially basement dwellers who bargain basement buy iffy talent?

            Thus, going back to my original point, it BEGS the question of as to whether or not the Cardinals as an organization are damaging their pitching.

            You can’t answer that without compiling a ton of more data.

            The easiest initial pass would be calculating days available to pitch versus DL’d.

            But even that needs massaging be it tabulating days where pitchers weren’t DLd but were not available to pitch due to injury (obviously normal days lost between starts or relief appearances, loss of managerial confidence, etc., would have to be taken into account as well).

            Likewise, you’d have to factor in newly signed pitchers who end up on DLs, etc., and Mo certainly has signed quite a few of late who meet that qualification.

            But even that needs massaging because nearly every club will take a chance on a recovering player because they come at a cheap price justifying the cost/benefit risk.

            And on and on.

            For me, it starts with Matheny’s handling of Rosenthal and Maness. His overuse of both created two huge red flags that beg a deeper look into how not only he, but the entire organization handles pitching be it the conditioning guys, trainers, doctors, pitching coaches, and managers.

  • M W

    He’s not a starter. His most realistic option is the bullpen. But I get that the team needs to give this one more shot, especially with Reyes out for the year. But the happy talk from the team should be met with enormous skepticism. This is an injury that doesn’t go away. It will always come back.

  • JeremyR

    I think he probably is toast, but I’m virtually certain he would have gotten the fifth spot in the rotation anyway, just like a clearly inferior Joe Kelly got it over Carlos Martinez, with Reyes eventually taking over.

  • ken

    or……maybe the human arm wasn’t meant for this kind of thing.

  • Aaron

    I think most of us had visions of greatness when Wacha first came up. Considering his injury, it will be a medical miracle if he is ever an effective starter again. Such a sad turn for such a promising talent.

  • geoff

    I don’t understand how Wacha’s shoulder/back could be expected to bounce back quickly in the bullpen. It would seem that bullpen work would be even more taxing than starting. There is not a large sample of his injury to glean any conclusions from. It isn’t exactly a shoulder but it isn’t something like an elbow injury where Tommy John surgery has a lot of history of success.

  • Scott Warren

    Once professional hitters can start eliminating pitches, it’s all over. If he can’t throw his changeup, he can’t be a SP with two pitches. Let’s hope this shoulder issue is finally over with.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Really sad situation here. Wacha had all the promise of the third ace. Think about it – Reyes and Tommy John. Wacha and scapula. Very sad. If those pitchers had remained healthy – WHOA!