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 …


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