On September 24th, 2013, young Cardinals’ phenom, Michael Wacha, flashed brilliance that was noticed by baseball fans around the country. He came within one out of a no-hitter, and his final stat line was 8 and two-thirds innings pitched, ONE hit, zero earned runs, two walks, and career-high nine strikeouts.
I would say that this was a statement performance from the 22-year-old Wacha. Though he is just one year from being drafted by Dan Kantrovitz and the Cardinals, Wacha has proven that he has the repertoire and makeup to be an impact starting pitcher right now and for many years to come.
So what made Wacha so dominant on Tuesday night against the Nationals?
I had an inkling as to why, but I checked out BrooksBaseball.net’s PITCHf/x tool to make sure the numbers backed up my theory before I decided to write about it. However, before we get into that, let’s quickly go over his pitch counts. He threw 92 fastballs, 17 changeups, and just 3 curveballs for a grand total of 112 pitches.
82% of his pitches were fastballs, and yet, he was one out away from a no-hitter? He only threw 3 curveballs (2.7%) all game? Something fishy has to be going on here, right? There is no way a starting pitcher could be successful for the entirety of a game when utilizing just two pitches. Well, for at least one night, Wacha proved all these notions wrong, and here’s why…
Wacha is 6’6″ and basically towers over opposing hitters when he is out there on the mound. To go along with his frame, his overhand pitching motion (pictured to the right) adds, on average, around four more inches to his release point.
In the one-hitter, Wacha’s release point averaged at 6’10.7″. A release point like this allows him to put an incredible amount of downward plane on his pitches–making hitting even harder than it already is in the big leagues. So…what else?
Washington hitters had pretty good odds that they were going to see a straight pitch last night, with 97.3% of Wacha’s pitches being fastballs and changeups. Yet, he was able to record 10 whiffs–five on his fastball and five on his changeup.
Thus, if Washington hitters knew what was coming–something straight–why were they unable to hit it? Here’s where my theory comes into play. In order for a changeup to be a successful pitch, especially at the Major League level, the pitcher must be able to disguise it as if he were throwing a fastball. The slightest change in arm velocity or release point will likely be keyed on by hitters as the game goes along.
Well, to be honest, Washington hitters had absolutely no clue what was coming after all. Sure, they knew it was going to be straight, but one pitch averaged over 95 MPH while the other averaged just under 88 MPH. The seven MPH difference between the pitches is more than enough to keep hitters from making solid contact.
So, why did they have no clue what was coming? HIS RELEASE POINT! Wacha’s release point on his fastball last night averaged at 6’11.5″. His changeup release point averaged at 6’10.9″. This is a difference of just 0.6 inches! For perspective, 0.6 inches is less than the diameter of a penny. Thus, there is no way that a batter standing 60.5 feet away could pick up on this difference. This left batters with basically one option at the plate–guess.
UPDATE: I have received many comments saying that his changeup has late movement/screwball action, and this is most definitely true. The numbers show that his changeup averaged a little over 7 inches of horizontal movement per pitch last night. However, my main point was that the his changeup looks straight (like a fastball) out of his hand, and the movement does not occur until its closer to home plate. Yet, even with the movement of this pitch, if his release point was a little off (which it was not), hitters could pick up on the differences and adjust accordingly.
Wacha will be in the playoff rotation. He has been the best starter for the Cardinals in September–33.1 innings pitched, 28 strikeouts, and a 1.72 ERA. He has been so good that I could even see him being the #3 starter (Sorry, Joe Kelly). As I said in an earlier blog post, “swing-and-miss” pitchers are crucial in the playoffs since runs always seem to come at a premium. The numbers show that Wacha is much more of a “swing-and-miss” pitcher than Kelly.
In the long-run, Wacha will have to keep developing his breaking ball if he wants to become a true top-end of the rotation pitcher, but who can really argue with his performance thus far?
Let’s save the breaking ball development for the off-season. As fans, we need to enjoy Wacha’s incredible, old-fashioned 1-2 punch (fastball-changeup) for the rest of 2013.
Until next time…
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- No-hitter just out of reach for Cards’ Wacha (stltoday.com)
- Gordon: Wacha’s near-gem exemplifies rookie success (stltoday.com)