Why Does a “Trade Wacha” Movement Exist?

photo: Michael Wacha (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images)

During this winter, there has been a vocal minority of commenters at The Cardinal Nation’s forum hopeful the St. Louis Cardinals would trade starter Michael Wacha – not necessarily to improve the team, but to rid it of a perceived liability.

Michael Wacha (USA TODAY Sports Images)

The right-hander has two years before becoming free agent eligible, with his salary for the 2018 and 2019 seasons on track to be set via the arbitration process.

Some cite as an example of supporting material one recent column in which Wacha’s stamina and ability to pitch through an opposing lineup more than twice were not only questioned due to his past shoulder blade issue, but it was surmised his results over the last two seasons combined is the best one can hope to see in the future from the 26-year old right-hander.

I am not in this camp whatsoever.

What are your expectations?

Do I wish Wacha had evolved into a true ace, the replacement for Adam Wainwright at the top of the rotation, leading the league in complete games and an annual Cy Young Award contender? Sure, I do, but that isn’t what we ever expected from him.

The former Texas A&M star rose so quickly through the Cardinals system after being taken in the first round in 2012 that he appeared just once in our annual top prospect rankings. Wacha was no. 4 overall prior to the 2013 season, following a dominating first partial season as a reliever which ended at Double-A Springfield.

At that time, I wrote this.

“We have yet to see what happens when Wacha is asked to pitch six or seven innings and go through a lineup a second time, let alone facing opposing hitters a third time in the same game. In the eight-team Texas League, a pitcher has to meet the same clubs over and over. We can learn a lot about a player through the course of a long summer.”

I think expectations became overly elevated because of his 17-win, all-star 2015 season, during which he threw 181 1/3 regular season innings with a 3.38 ERA. But, by then the shoulder problems had already surfaced, which took the better part of a year to get under control. Further, lumping his injury-plagued 2016 with 2017 does not seem a fair analysis.

2016-2017 workload

Wacha increased his innings pitched from 2016 when injured from 138 to 165 2/3 in 2017. He also held opposing hitters to slightly lower SLG and OPS the third time through the order in 2017 vs. 2016, though further improvement there would be good.

How does anyone banging away on a keyboard know Wacha cannot further improve his stamina? The data shows that is what he did from 2016 to 2017. (He also knocked a run off his ERA, from 5.09 to 4.13, in case that matters.)

The whole narrative about Wacha’s durability does not stand up in today’s game, as pitchers’ starts are getting shorter and shorter. As my friend Jason Collette observed about MLB pitching overall in a Sunday morning tweet, “The number of SP facing at least 19 batters in an outing is in a 4-year decline.”

Let’s look at the numbers to put Wacha’s pitching into perspective. This is raw data with no rounding to the nearest inning.

Average innings pitched per start, 2017
5.51 MLB
5.52 National League
5.50 American League

Average innings pitched per start, Cardinals, 2017
6.40 Martinez
5.92 Leake
5.65 Lynn
5.52 Wacha
5.28 Wainwright

For those who are not into math, the exact difference between the durable Lynn and the allegedly fragile Wacha was a razor-thin 0.13 innings per start.

Further, Wacha’s innings per start last season was EXACTLY THE SAME as the National League average.

An uptick in velocity

In terms of his bread-and-butter four-seam fastball, a pitch he throws about 56 percent of the time, Wacha’s average velocity had been in the 93 to 94 mph range from his 2013 debut through 2016. It improved to a new personal-best of 95.1 mph in 2017, up 1.2 mph over 2016.

Yes, his personal best. Wacha’s fastball was faster in 2017 than even in 2015. That is progress, folks.

Update

Following the posting of this article, this information was provided to me by the folks from MLB Quality of Pitch.

Michael Wacha 2017 Pitch Quality

5.37 QOPA (Top 2% MLB) ! !
Vertical Break (Top 7% MLB)
Velocity (Top 24% MLB)
Location (Top 31% MLB)

2018 outlook

As the Cardinals strive to replace the 340 innings delivered in 2017 by since-departed Lynn and Mike Leake, what sense would it make to jettison the man who appears to be their #2 starter behind Carlos Martinez? In fact, the two – Wacha and Martinez – are the only players on the 2018 Cardinals roster to have made 30 starts last season.

As the 2018 rotation stands now, Miles Mikolas and Luke Weaver look to be in. Who would be next in line if Wacha needs replacing and why would you have more confidence in him?

In conclusion

I do not agree with the insinuation being made by some that 2016 and 2017 combined is the best Wacha can ever be. I see evidence of progress last season. Perhaps as he gains more experience with his new shoulder routines, he can get back closer to where he was in 2015.

In the here and now, Wacha remains a solid middle-of-the rotation option for the Cardinals. Trading him away would be short-sighted, but I have no reason to believe such an idea is even being considered – nor should it be.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at thecardinalnation@gmail.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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