Michael Wacha, the New Big Brother of the Cardinals Rotation

Three starts into the 2018 season, Michael Wacha’s ERA was an unsightly 5.52. He’d walked opposing hitters at an ozone-level high rate of 15 percent. Two homers left the yard in his first 14.2 innings of work.

Worried about Wacha?

Well, I was. But after a solid bounce-back season in 2017, Wacha steadied himself after the shaky start to 2018 and is back on course for another positive year.

He deserves it.

In his last eight starts covering 48.1 innings Wacha has a 1.86 ERA and six quality starts. He’s cut down on his free passes; Wacha’s walk rate over his last eight starts is a more reasonable 7.8 percent. And remember how I told you Wacha was pelted for two homers in his first 14.2 innings? He’s given up two in the last 48.1 innings.

And while I don’t think Wacha will ever be a prolific strikeout pitcher, he’s struck out 21.3% of hitters during this current eight-start stretch. He’s getting more ground balls (44%.) He’s been dinged for a puny .209 batting average and .530 OPS. Left-handed batters (.492 OPS) aren’t bothering him. And even though he’s a right-handed pitcher, RH batters (.567 OPS) are causing Wacha a little more trouble than the LH batters.

For the season Wacha is 6-1 with a 2.71 ERA that’s tied for ninth-best in the National League. He’s allowed the fourth lowest slugging percentage (.303), sixth lowest OPS (.598), and 12th lowest batting average (.219.)

Wacha’s increased use of his curveball has reduced his volume of fastballs by 11 percent from last season, and 14 percent from 2015. That curve — to go along with a sharper cutter and a revived changeup — has made Wacha more complete and less predictable. Hitters can’t wait for the inevitable four-seam fastball. Unlike past seasons, they can’t go into an at-bat expecting the four-seam fastball on he first pitch, or when Wacha is behind in the count. He’s been using that curve quite a bit on his first pitch, and has caught hitters off guard by throwing it when he’s behind in the count.

With more tools in his kit, Wacha is fixing another problem.

Let’s call it   The Third Time Through Beatdown. 

In 2016 and 2017 combined (and really it began before that), when Wacha took on the opponent’s lineup for the third time in a game, he left with bruises and a swollen ERA.

The hitters that had the grand opportunity to face a tiring Wacha for a third at-bat in a game during the past two seasons smacked him around for a .310 batting average, .375 OBP, .524 slug and .899 OPS. They clobbered him for 22 doubles and 12 homers in 271 at-bats. Ugh.

OK, it’s early on in 2018. But so far Wacha has faced 62 batters in their third time up against him in a start, and he’s winning the round. In those third at-bats the opponents are 11 for 56 (.196) with a .246 OBP and .286 slug. That low OPS of .532 — again, so far — is an amazing 367 points down from the 2016-17 OPS level against Wacha on the third time through.

The turnaround isn’t complete … far from it … but it’s certainly encouraging.

Hey ….

Remember when Wacha was the kid in the rotation? That was 2013. It was memorable. He was a rookie. He was electric, saving the Cardinals from elimination by Pittsburgh in the NLDS and pitching them into the World Series by out-acing the LA Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS.

That was 2013. That’s a fact. But with all of the shoulder-blade trouble and the related stress condition that fatigues the shoulder … and after all of the unsettling moments (Travis Ishikawa, 2014 NLCS) … and after the second-half fades — the shoulder thing — that inflated his post All-Star break ERA to 4.74 from the 2014 through 2017 seasons combined … 2013 seems like a long time ago. More like 2003.

We remember when Wacha was a kid, and now it’s interesting to note that he’s the big brother now.

Adam Wainwright is on the DL with another round of elbow miseries and his contract is up after the season. With all of the tremendous young starting pitching the Cardinals have at the ready (and more to come) it’s difficult to envision a spot for Waino in 2019. And while Miles Mikolas at 29 is older than Wacha, this is his first season with the team.

Wacha has the most seniority among active STL starting pitchers. Wacha and Carlos Martinez are roughly the same age, but Wacha turns 27 on July 1, and Martinez doesn’t reach 27 until Sept. 21. And while both pitchers arrived in St. Louis as rookies in 2013, Martinez broke in as a reliever and didn’t claim a rotation spot until 2015. Wacha was in his third season as a starter by then.

So it’s neat, and maybe even sentimental, to see Wacha evolving into the touchstone starter.

Wacha is the veteran that’s stands like a watchtower that’s been baked by the sun, washed by the rain, pelted by hail, struck by lightning … a watchtower that functions beautifully, a watchtower that has marked the time, a watchtower that has weathered the storms and is still shining.

Wacha can offer perspective and wisdom to the younger pitchers that now make their way over to his space. Jack Flaherty 22, Alex Reyes 23, Luke Weaver 24, Jordan Hicks 21. And at some point soon, Dakota Hudson (23), Ryan Helsley (23) and Austin Gomber (24) will sidle up to Wacha to talk or just listen.

You can’t be a watchtower veteran starter unless you’ve proven your strength and resolve when the winds are howling and the skies are opening up. How can you tell the kids with the talented arms about the lessons of this game when you haven’t been tested by everything this game can throw at you?

That’s Wacha. He’s felt the exhilaration of success, the frustration of failure, the pain of injuries, the fear of uncertainty, the doubts that creep in when confronting your potential demise.

Wacha has been on top, winning a World Series game in only his 13th major-league start, regular season or postseason. In the 11th and 12th big-league starts of his career, Wacha defeated the best, Kershaw, when it mattered most. But exactly a year later, virtually helpless as a rusty reliever in that ninth inning at San Francisco, a diminished Wacha was beaten by Ishikawa — a journeyman and marginal big-league hitter who hit only one postseason homer during his career … the home run that rocked Wacha and showed how quickly a pitcher’s fortunes can change.

Yes, Wacha has valuable stories to tell them. He can tell them about winning, and not taking a moment of success for granted. He can tell them about losing, and getting through the hard times, and finding a way to fight back when you’re feeling weak.

Wacha can take them the third time through the lineup.

He’s navigated his way through all of it, whatever this game confronts him with.

The baby bird pitchers couldn’t ask for a better big brother.

Thanks for reading …