Somehow, some way, the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals — despite all of their obvious flaws — are contending for both the second wild card spot and the divisional crown. If they want to close the remaining gaps (2.0 GB and 4.0 GB, respectively) and ultimately take over one of those spots, starting pitching will be of supreme importance. Well, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and Luke Weaver have all been great for, at the very least, the last month or so. The front office traded away Mike Leake (thankfully), and Adam Wainwright is currently injured. This leaves Michael Wacha and 21-year-old rookie Jack Flaherty to round out the rotation. It isn’t fair to expect too much out of the rookie right-handed, so just as Bernie Miklasz explained on his show yesterday, a whole lot rides on Wacha’s finish to the season.
For the most part, Michael Wacha has been pretty good in 2017. In fact, Wacha has posted a career high in fWAR (2.5) despite throwing 40 fewer innings than his previous career high (2.3). While one would ideally hope for more innings per start (5.42), it certainly could be worse given his injury history. Yet, regardless of past performance, the Cardinals are depending on him to perform well over the last month of the regular season. It really is as simple as that.
Well, if you have read any of my articles over the last four plus years, you know my thoughts on the changeup. It is my absolute favorite pitch. While Wacha throws a pretty good one, I can think of three or four better ones on staff right now. That is beside the point and should be saved for another post, though. Thus, what we do know about changeups is they’re largely successful through deception. They’re thrown to look like fastballs out of the hand only to duck beneath a bat entirely (or its barrel, at the very least) due to flying in at a slower speed.
“Thrown to look like fastballs” is the money phrase here. Arm speed, arm action, and release point are all vital components to the throwing of a good changeup. Arm speed is especially important considering MLB hitters can pick up on even the slightest deviation from the norm. Faster arm speed? Think fastball. Slower arm speed? Think changeup. Pitchers providing hitters with the answers to the test beforehand is simply not a recipe for success. Well, as you will see below, Wacha seems to be doing just that of late. And frankly, if the Cardinals want a real shot at the postseason, Wacha needs to start by buttoning up his mechanics.
For what it’s worth, this is something I first picked up on in Wacha’s August 25th start against the Rays. After re-watching that start, I felt fairly comfortable with what I had seen, but as with anything baseball-related, I needed a larger sample. My opinion stayed the same after watching (and re-watching) Wacha’s August 31st start. Finally, after Tuesday’s start against the Padres, I enlisted the help of @cardinalsgifs, and we arrived at a pretty clear conclusion. To align timing, I ask for the overlaid GIFs to be paired with Wacha’s “breaking of his hands,” or in other words, when he pulled the ball out of his glove.
First and foremost, be wary of overlaid GIFs containing fuzzy non-moving objects — indicating an imperfect alignment. As you’d expect from the great @cardinalsgifs, his GIFs are aligned almost perfectly. Just take a look at the clarity of the backstop’s advertising. This is important to understand considering the bold stance taken in this article’s title.
Before watching the GIFs, I probably need to provide a brief guide on how to view them, so that they are better understood. Remember, the timing is synced to when Wacha pulls the ball out of his glove, so you don’t have to worry about that. The predominant GIF is a fourseamer, and the GIF with a red hue/tint is a changeup. I stress the importance of focusing on his throwing arm — the same thing hitters are stalking roughly 55 feet away.
Michael Wacha fourseamer-changeup overlay number one
I’ll be the first to admit that the difference isn’t too obvious on this one. While there is a slight difference, is it enough for an opposing hitter to pick up on? Probably not, but we are talking about Major League hitters here, and they do this for a living. Either way, I completely understand if you are not yet convinced with my findings. That is why I have embedded two more GIFs to make my point.
Michael Wacha fourseamer-changeup overlay number two
The difference is much more pronounced this time around. When focusing on the red-tinted throwing arm, you can clearly see Wacha’s changeup release lags well behind his fourseamer release. Remember, the GIFs are aligned to his breaking of hands, so in theory, the pitches should be released simultaneously. This is not the case.
Michael Wacha fourseamer-changeup overlay number three
Notice how the first two GIFs are Wacha throwing from the stretch? Well, as you can see, the difference in arm speed between the fourseamer and changeup is even more glaring when he throws from the wind-up. The release of the changeup is noticeably behind the release of the fourseamer. Up-in-the-zone changeups don’t drop as much as low-in-the-zone ones. This is largely due to incorrect planing of the pitch. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cory Spangenberg picked up on this immediately, easily taking ball four despite the pitch landing just barely above the strike zone.
As I stated earlier, Wacha has been pretty good this season. His changeup hasn’t been an overwhelmingly ineffective pitch for him, either. However, it could certainly be better, and cleaning up the difference in arm speed highlighted above seems like the obvious first step. I understand in-season adjustments can be difficult, but the Cardinals are counting on Wacha. Making this adjustment will pay off (literally, as he enters his second year of arbitration) in the short- and long-term.
As always, credit to @cardinalsgifs for working with me one these. You should follow him on Twitter, trust me.