Coming into his start Monday afternoon, Michael Wacha was in the midst of a rough patch. Since May 25th, he had surrendered 24 runs (21 earned) across 25.1 innings–that’s an ERA of 7.46 in that span. Only once had he lasted at least five innings, and that came against the lowly Phillies.
In the Cardinals 8-2 win Monday at Busch Stadium, Wacha managed to traverse six innings, allowing just one run. Though it came against another last place club in the Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals have seen firsthand the tremendous capabilities of that Cincy lineup. For that reason, this outing probably carries more weight than that quality start over the Phillies a few weeks back.
Because of his recent struggles, there were questions whether Wacha should have even had the opportunity to make Monday’s start. Mike Matheny isn’t a fan of the noise surrounding Wacha’s status, but appreciates the way he has approached his game in spite of it all.
“Yeah, I’d rather that not happen,” Mike Matheny said in his postgame presser aired on Fox Sports Midwest. “To have those thoughts hanging over every time they get on the mound, that’s not ideal. But it is what it is. That’s the business that we’re in.
“I think Michael’s handled it like a pro. We try to communicate with him–what we see, what we’re doing, what we’re thinking. And then it comes down to him performing. Sometimes we all get our backs up against a wall, and there’s all kinds of noise. That just gives us an opportunity to go out and do what we do.”
Matheny praised the life of Wacha’s repertoire Monday, stating his fastball, changeup, and curveball blended well to steal strikes when he needed them, producing the necessary effects to get the job done.
“I think he’s just adding to his ability and adding to his pitch selection,” Matheny said. “But it does revolve around that nice downhill angle that he has, that’s unique to him. Not a lot of guys in the league have it.”
That’s the rub with Wacha. His delivery is the one characteristic most often attributed to his success–may it also be the element of his game that causes his body to break down if his mechanics aren’t perfect?
At least for Monday, the delivery was right where Wacha needed it to be.
“I felt like I was back on top of the ball, throwing downhill, bottom of the zone,” Wacha said on Fox Sports Midwest. “Got some soft contact and some ground balls. Overall, it definitely felt a lot better.”
Wacha recognized the stress his recent struggles had placed on the bullpen. His efficiency had become such a focus that Tyler Lyons had been deemed the unofficial piggyback for games Wacha was scheduled to pitch. That level of roster maneuvering is not conducive to a winning effort, and Wacha knows it.
“I felt like I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on the bullpen my last starts,” Wacha said. “Short outings always put pressure on them… It definitely felt good getting through the sixth.”
Outings like Monday’s are certainly a welcomed sign–but can they be expected to come on a consistent basis?
The book on Wacha has been the ability to shut down the opposition the first time through the batting order (.618 opposing OPS), but wearing down thereafter, allowing a .918 opposing OPS the second time through the order, and .952 the third time through.
Due to the rare nature of the scapular stress injury in his right shoulder, it’s hard to say whether a career shift to relief pitching would be a sensible fit for Wacha’s condition. But because of the frequency of his troublesome outings, many in the fanbase and media were calling for the Cardinals to try to find out before Wacha delivered Monday.
It’s important to bear in mind that medically, the bullpen may not be the best fit for Wacha. Until he does it without ill effect, it’s hard to determine whether he could handle the stress that accompanies life as a reliever–throwing multiple times a week, inconsistent schedules, etc.
The problem the Cardinals may run into, though, is if their reluctance to test him in that capacity interferes with their ability to field the most competitive team possible. For what it’s worth, Wacha told reporters Monday that he hadn’t heard any of the outside chatter about his status, and that nobody with the team has mentioned to him the possibility of a move to the bullpen–perhaps those discussion have been purely external.
When pitchers turn it around after bad stretches, media hot takes can turn cold quickly. Take for example Adam Wainwright‘s brief resurgence a few weeks back–how dumb did we all look there for a minute? The reality is that anyone is capable of the occasional glowing performance; in some cases, allowing those performances to mask obvious trends when handling personnel decisions can be detrimental to the goals of the organization. Eventually, September arrives, the season expires and guys are what their numbers show–what will Wacha’s tale be when all is said and done this season?
Hopefully Wacha’s strong showing Monday was the start of a revolution in his 2017 campaign. But if the next couple weeks leading into the All-Star break indicate otherwise, the Cardinals should not drag their feet in considering a possible change to his role.