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I’m Sorry To Have To Say This, But The Cardinals Have To Move Michael Wacha To The Bullpen

At some point, and probably soon, the Cardinals will have to uncross their fingers and square up to reality. Michael Wacha just isn’t the same pitcher.

I hate saying that. I really hate saying it. I pull for the guy. I want to see him kick butt.

But for the fourth consecutive season, Wacha’s pitching is deteriorating as the season pushes on. The familiar pattern: he gets off to a great start. Then comes the fade.

This has nothing to do his heart, work ethic, standards, or competitive character. Wacha has all of that and talent. Through no fault of his own, he’s been cursed by an unfortunate and rare shoulder-blade condition that leads to fatigue, mechanical breakdowns, loss of command, and vulnerability.

Am I being premature here? It’s possible. Frankly, I’d like to be wrong about this. But the trends aren’t encouraging.

In his first seven starts this season Wacha had a 2.74 ERA and averaged 6 innings per start. He gave up less than one homer (0.84) per nine innings. His walk rate was 7.1 percent, or 2.53 per 9 innings. His strikeout-walk ratio was 3.25. His walks-hits allowed per inning (1.15) was fine.

Over his last five starts, including Thursday’s deflating performance in the loss to Milwaukee, Wacha has an 8.86 ERA. He’s averaged 4.2 innings per outing, and has lasted four innings or less in four of the five starts. Wacha’s WHIP through this stretch is a poor 2.06. Wacha’s walk rate is rising in an alarming way: 13.3 percent over the five starts, or 5.9 per nine innings. That’s trouble. (Walks played directly into three of the four earned runs that Milwaukee scored on Wacha in Thursday’s game.)

The command and control wildness has reduced Wacha’s strikeout-walk ratio; it’s 1.50 over his last five games.  And Wacha’s HR rate is escalating.  He’s been popped for four homers in 21.1 innings; that’s 1.69 per nine IP.

The key indicators for Wacha are the walk rate, and the homers. In the previous two-three seasons, when Wacha starts to lose his stuff, the walks soar, the home runs soar. This is happening again. Optimists will tout Wacha’s good fastball velocity, but speed doesn’t matter. Location matters. This is all about commanding his fastball … and losing command of that pitch.

I mentioned this in a recent piece on Wacha, but we’re seeing a drop in quality when he goes against an opponent’s lineup the second time through.

During this five-start period, here are the hitters’ numbers versus Wacha’s during the first time through the lineup: .179 average, .289 OBP, .410 slugging percentage, 699 OPS, 13 percent walk rate,  and 29% strikeout rate. Even then, when Wacha is pitching reasonably well, the walk rate is too high, as is the HR rate (1.7 per nine.) The first time through, Wacha has a 2.53 ERA.

But after the first time through the lineup, this is what hitters have done to Wacha in subsequent plate appearances: .442 average, .517 OBP, .686 slug, 1.203 OPS, a strikeout rate of only 13.3 percent, and a walk rate of 13.3 percent. The home-run rate is about the same, 1.7 per nine. Wacha’s ERA during the second time through and beyond is 15.19.

These numbers are loud. They’re hollering at us.

Wacha’s pitching collapses once he reaches a certain stage of the game.

After the first time through the lineup, his stuff turns to batting practice.

But here’s a positive: Wacha is effective during his first time through a lineup. That strikeout punch is heavy. The walks are problematic, but early on at least Wacha can swing-and-miss his way out of jams.

Sounds like a potentially formidable reliever, right?

That’s what I’m thinking.

And Wacha could boost a fragile bullpen.

The Cardinals also have young starting pitching at Memphis: Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales and Jack Flaherty.  I know Gonzales was awful in his Tuesday-night start (and loss) vs. Milwaukee. But that’s no reason to exclude him from consideration. Weaver is having a superb season, and Flaherty’s star is rising fast.  This team has options. By repurposing Wacha and plugging a young arm into the rotation, the Cardinals possibly strengthen two problematic areas of their pitching staff.

The Cards can’t afford to go on with starters, especially Wacha, who aren’t putting in many innings. The shortage of starter innings only exacerbates the bullpen’s shakiness.

I don’t think the Cardinals are close to confronting the unfortunate reality here. I think the Cardinals will keep giving the ball to Wacha every fifth day, and hope he’ll return to form, even they’re fully aware of the circumstances working against him.

You see, we all want Wacha to thrive. We want Wacha to overcome these shoulder-blade miseries We want him to be the 2013 version of himself. What’s happened to Wacha isn’t fair.  But it’s reality.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: After a Strong Start That Prevented Ruination, the Cardinals’ Rotation Is Showing Cracks

  • chrisoleary

    I agree, but what’s tragic is Wacha likely wouldn’t have to move to the bullpen if he would insist on (be encouraged to?) throw 96-97. You can see the difference in his scap as he ramps up his velocity. I’d be willing to bet he’d be just fine sitting 92-93 like he did in college. A great change-up like Wacha’s works when thrown off of a fastball of pretty much any velocity.

    http://www.chrisoleary.com/projects/pitchingmechanics101/Analyses/MichaelWachaPitchingMechanics.html

  • JohnS

    The Cards will keep starting Wacha as Bernie says. They are stuck in their rut of doing the same things over and over, hoping for a different result. Even Mozeliak said this, and then continues to do just that, though I admit he doesn’t control who is making the starts. Maybe time for another preemptive strike of saving MM from himself by sending Wacha down for a bit and bringing up another starter. Then he would probably put Rosenthal in the rotation! You just can’t believe the things you see with this organization….sad.

    • dan

      Totally agree. How could any knowledgeable baseball person not see this exact thing coming with Wacha? It’s like the final game of last season with a playoff spot on the line when Mike called on Wacha to start. Every one with half a brain knew we were spotting the Pirates 3-5 runs which is exactly what happened. This team is on a broken loop and needs a massive shakeup.

  • Greg Gibson

    Marco Gonzalez too. He is a reliever. First tie through the order, great! Second time through the order, rocked. See bullpen…

    • Big T

      Marco needs a third pitch. Until he develops a third pitch he is destined only for a bull pen duty.. Maybe he can share clip board duties with Cecil…

  • Big T

    These stats speak for themselves as does the eye test. Like you Bernie I am an avid Wacha fan (in fact have his jersey.) I wish Dave Duncan was still here to check/tweak his mechanics. Either way I think the move you propose would help protect Wacha’s confidence (psyche) from being destroyed. Actually had Reyes not been hurt that is where I believe he would have started the season. I believe it would be beneficial for both areas of the team. Go Cards.

    Happy Fathers Day Bernie. Enjoy a Cohiba!!

  • if Reyes didn’t blow out his UCL this move would have probably already happened. Without Reyes, Weaver seems like the next man up, but I don’t see them making this move until it’s too late (similar to how they kept trotting Brandon Moss out there last year in a historic slump).

  • Chris Moeller

    The fact that there’s no sense of urgency about moving Wacha out of the rotation indicates that Matheny must be still getting a private vote of confidence about his future. That stupid extension.

  • Richard Craig Friedman

    I fully agree Wacha is not a rotation pitcher, but I’m not convinced he would thrive in the bullpen. Send him to Memphis for a bullpen tryout is what makes sense to me.

    • Big T

      Might as well let him have a go at this level. Couldn’t do much worse than those already there….just sayn

  • James Berry

    Why be sorry. His career is going no where as a starter. My friends and i have been saying this for some time now. That 96-97 mph fastball could beef up a bit towards 100, which would make the change even more formidable.

    Problem is, who takes his spot in the rotation immediately? Marco needs to develop a third pitch. He’s far too predictable, as most starters are, with only two. Weaver would be my choice for a few reasons. He has a third pitch and i don’t want Flaherty rushed up. Especially if this season keeps disappointing. Lyons could be that bridge as a starter. I hate that we don’t have at least one lefty in the rotation, but there are two problems with going with Lyons. He’d need to be stretched out in Memphis and it would weaken our BP…further. Yes, Lyons could possibly stretch out up with the big club, but that’s taking a chance of getting only 4 innings from him the first, or even second, time. We get that now from Wacha.

    It’s well time to make a change though.

    • Emmett McAuliffe

      The Cards will beat up on the Phils on the road, and Bucs and Reds at home the next 10 days and be back in the thick. With the Central pathetic, we gotta make a run at it this year. Which may mean making some cold, hard decisions about both Wacha AND Wainwright. But we cant go to a total youth movement with Flaherty, while we still have a chance to win our fourth NL Central title in seven years.

      Yes, I think it should be Lyons. In long-relief Lyo㎱ is .706 OPS, lower than everybody on the starting staff except Carlos & Leake, & has highest K/9 of all pitchers outside of Carlos/Rosey.He has proven start㏌g ability,cl㏌ch㏌g 100th game ㏌ 2015 with a 7-inning shutout performance.Plus having missed part of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the arm should be good to go for the rest of the summer.

      • James Berry

        Thus far, we are 2-7 against the Reds. I wouldn’t count on beating them or either of the other 2 teams you mention.

  • Tom L

    Go ahead, move him to the pen.
    You’ll see why the Cardinals have not done so already-as soon as he pitches two days in a row his shoulder problems will return.

    • Realist50

      This is a very good point.

      It doesn’t mean that he should stay in the rotation, but it’s awfully optimistic to think that a player with his shoulder condition would fare well in the bullpen. Working in the bullpen has its own stresses: fewer rest days, a less certain schedule, and less time to warm up.

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  • JeremyR

    They don’t really have an obvious replacement. Flaherty won’t get promoted, he’s still too young.

    Weaver isn’t a major league pitcher.

    And Gonzalez really hasn’t pitched much since his injury. He’s as big a question as Wacha.

    • Tom Dickerson

      Flaherty looked ready this Spring. Somebody has to be better than Wacha and his laser straight fastball.

  • M W

    This is the biggest no brainer.

    Wacha to the bullpen
    Weaver to the rotation
    Rosie to closer
    Oh to 7th or 8th inning
    Move Carp back to 3rd and Gyorko to 2nd
    Call up Voit and play him at 1st.

    Time to get bold.

    • Korey Knepper

      Duncan on the turn was talking about the bold moves the cards should make, and they made a lot of sense. The move now is Wacha to the pen Weaver to the rotation. In a couple weeks trade Carpenter and Lynn to the Yanks for Torres call up Voit and Flaharaty. Rosey and Wacha at the back end of the pen looks good.

  • ken

    wacha’s body is merely doing what we ought to expect a normal human body to do when it is subjected to the extreme stresses to which professional baseball pitchers–and especially MLB pitchers–subject their arms and shoulders.

    NEXT!!

  • Mark Lee Arbogast

    They have serious issues with two starters. Wainwright and Wacha are both pitching really terrible. What to do, what to do. I saw Weaver when they brought him up and frankly I wasn’t impressed. I thought he struggled.

  • Scott Warren

    The only thing to be sorry about is that the Cardinals haven’t figured this out by now. It has been more than obvious for a few years that is where he belongs. This has become one of the worst run organizations in all of baseball.

  • What?

    Bernie…time to move Wacha while he still has some value and resign Lance Lynn, who is more dependable at this stage. Wacha will never be the same pitcher as he was, as same for Waino. Keeping Lynn protects the rotation as we begin to move Weaver and next year Reyes into the rotation.

  • ecall

    They probably also need to replace Wainwright in the rotation.

  • Matt Roberson

    You are dead-on, bullseye correct here Bernie. Thanks for reading (my comment).