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Michael Wacha Concerns Overblown?

June 1, 2013 BY ALEX EISENBERG No Comments Yet

So were my worries about Michael Wacha overblown? Probably so. The young right hander went out and pitched a gem Thursday night in his Major League debut, allowing just one run and two hits in seven innings of work. He struck out six batters and walked none.

While his performance was outstanding, it’s not the pretty stat line that has caused me to re-think my evaluation of him. I’ll start by addressing my biggest area of concern heading into Thursday’s start: his low K% and extreme fly ball tendencies in Triple-A (small sample size caveats aside). Thursday’s start actually allowed me to put those numbers into context.

Here’s the pitch breakdown from Thursday’s start against the Royals and his early May start against Omaha (the start you see in the video provide within the article)…

Number of pitches thrown vs. the Royals on Thursday, broken down by pitch type…

93 pitches total vs. Royals (MLB)

Fastballs – 59 (63% of all pitches)

Change-Ups – 31 (34% of all pitches)

Curveballs – 3 (3% of all pitches)

Now compare that to his pitch selection in the game profiled for my article on Tuesday…

97 pitches total vs. Omaha (Triple-A)

Fastballs – 70 (72% of all pitches)

Change-Ups – 8 (8% of all pitches)

Curveballs – 17 (17.5% of all pitches)

Unknown – 2 (both resulted in swinging strikes for what it’s worth)

That’s quite the contrast. Here is one of my closing statements from the first Wacha article

Now, in the start you see in the video above, he only used his change-up sparingly. Most of his swinging strikes will come off that change-up. It’s possible he was working on his other offerings and put his change-up in his back pocket, which resulted in the lower strikeout rate. But I’m just speculating.

The pitch selection for each game makes this theory much more plausible. If we dig a little deeper into the numbers, you can also see the impact of taking away Wacha’s best pitch.

In his start against the Royals, he induced a swing and a miss 11 times, good for a swinging strike rate of 11.8%. Of those swinging strikes, nine came off his change-up, meaning 28% of the change-ups Wacha threw resulted in a swing-and-miss. Just two came off his fastball, which means just 3% of Wacha’s fastballs resulted in a swing-and-miss.

In his start against Omaha, Wacha’s swinging strike rate on his fastball was just 5.7%. His curveball resulted in a swinging strike 5.8% of the time.

Working on his breaking ball and learning how to succeed with only limited use of his change-up could very well explain why Wacha’s K% was so low in Triple-A.

And how do you explain the fly ball tendencies he showed in Triple-A? Probably small sample size. But ignoring that, Wacha’s change-up is likely a big ground ball inducer for him. By throwing it less, fewer balls are being put on the ground. The Royals put his change-up in play seven times on Thursday night and six of those balls were on the ground.

That said, I do think Wacha should be getting more ground balls from his fastball.

Better Stuff?

Maybe the most important thing I took away from Thursday’s start was the kind of velocity Wacha was generating with his fastball. He was pumping out fastballs between 93 and 96 mph and touching 97 through the first two innings. In innings 3 and 4, Wacha was still routinely in the 92 and 95 mph range. It wasn’t until innings 5, 6, and 7 that his velocity dropped to the 90 to 93 mph range. Most reports I’ve seen had his velocity topping out at around 95, and settling more in the 91 – 93 mph range.

It’s not just Wacha’s fastball I needed to reconsider. My impression of his secondary offerings have changed a bit, too. His change-up is better than I thought it was (it wasn’t at its best against Omaha). It’s more plus than above average. But at the same time, as I re-watched his start against Omaha, I wound up with a more negative impression of his curveball (more of an average pitch than an above average one, and a pitch that he doesn’t command as well as I originally thought).

To Sum It Up

As I wrap this up, there are a couple things to take out of this…

One is that it’s important to dig deeper into why a player’s numbers are what they are, and not just take them at face value.

And second, long time readers know I’m not big on making grand right or wrong proclamations. Rather, I try to use probabilities when projecting out a player’s future. Wacha is a good example of why I do this. Things change. In this case, I was given access to new information that I think helps me make a more accurate projection of Wacha’s future.

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