On paper Michael Wacha has struggled over the past two seasons. After a 17-7 record in 2015 with a 3.38 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 7.59 K/9, and a .272 BABIP, he has not been able to replicate anything near that.
Or has he? Has Wacha been the victim of bad luck? Do his stats truly reflect the pitcher he has been for the St. Louis Cardinals?
I’ve been a believer in Wacha since he was drafted 19th overall in 2012. He was my first pick in a dynasty league draft in 2013 and has been on my roster every since. The Cardinals clearly believe in him too. He rocketed through the minor leagues making briefs stops at all levels before making his first appearance with the Cards in 2013.
Comparing batted ball numbers over the past 5 seasons actually shows that Wacha has improved. I am including 2013 even though the data includes only 15 games. Wacha only appeared in 19 games in 2014 so the comparison is still valid.
2017 saw him set new bests in LD% and GB%. He gave up fewer line drives and induced more groundballs, and yet he didn’t see results in the traditional stats that fantasy baseball generally uses.
Continuing our comparison of batted ball stats, the peculiar trend is still noticeable.
The biggest trend here is the decrease in hard contact. Since he broke into the big leagues, he has lowered the amount of hard contact given up outside of a small increase in 2014. He has maintained his soft contact, while his medium contact has gradually increased. This isn’t overly significant, as the percentage has to be allocated somewhere.
Before I make the final comparison, I want to show how Wacha’s BABIP, xFIP-, and SIERA have trended.
So what’s the deal with the xFIP-? Well, unlike SIERA, xFIP- doesn’t focus on balls in play quite as much. SIERA likes strikeouts, low walk rates, and higher groundball rates. So why has Wacha’s SIERA stayed relatively high? This final comparison will show why.
Batters are pulling the ball more than ever against Wacha. The best power numbers are, in general, to the pull side. If batters are turning on more pitches, the increase in BABIP isn’t shocking. Don’t get me wrong, the BABIP over the past two seasons has been well above average. It could be that the Cards haven’t been utilizing the extreme shifts enough to try to combat the increase in pull%. Digging into the shift stats, I did find that the Cardinals employed a defensive shift only 361 times, 451 less times than they did 2016. Wacha’s pull% numbers were already on the rise in 2016, but it is possible that more shifts could help combat the increased amount of pulled hits.
What about 2018? Will Wacha see some positive regression? It he can increase the effectiveness of his changeup, the soft contact numbers should increase which would lower BABIP back towards league average. That in turn would lead to dips in SIERA, and likely pull% as well. In a fair world, Wacha has at least an average season, which probably leads to a better overall performance. I watched him throw against the Blue Jays in an exhibition game in Montreal on Monday, and his changeup was effective. He induced a few groundballs and soft contact with the pitch. It’s the only time I have seen him throw this spring, but he looked ready to open the season strong. In 2017 his average fastball velocity was 95.6mph and the average velocity of his changeup was 88.2mph. Those were both career highs. As long as the positive regression in BABIP is somewhat present, expect Wacha to have an excellent year.
Stats from FanGraphs.
Shift stats from Bill James Online.
Photo from Gammons Daily.