Pitching Report: Michael Wacha thriving behind his improved cutter
Adam Wainwright may be on the shelf, but two pitchers who learned at his right hand—and arm—are having the best seasons of their career. Earlier this season, we touched on Shelby Miller and the success he’s having with the cutter he picked up from Wainwright. Michael Wacha, who graduated to the Cardinals alongside Miller, is also using the cutter more than ever before this season. The silver lining for Wainwright here is that Wacha is still his teammate.
When Wacha first joined the Cardinals in 2013, he was a flame-throwing strikeout machine. In 64 2/3 innings that year, he had 65 strikeouts while averaging 94.2 mph with his fastball. Wacha still runs his fastball up into the mid-90s, but he’s not striking out nearly as many batters this year as he did in 2013 and '14. Last season’s arm injury didn’t just necessitate a change in his repertoire. It also gave him the time required to perfect a new pitch. That pitch is the cutter, mastered years before him by Wainwright. After throwing it 13% of the time last season, Wacha is throwing it nearly 17% of the time in 2015. Its 9.2% whiff rate is quite good for any variety of fastball, and opponents are hitting just .219 with a .250 slugging percentage against the offering.
Wacha’s changeup and curveball remain his primary swing-and-miss weapons, but it’s his cutter that is at the base of his success this year. He uses it primarily against righties, and with good reason. Coming into 2015, Wacha had reverse splits, finding more success against lefties, thanks to his changeup, than he had against same-siders. In 2013, righties slugged .417 against Wacha. Last year, they were at .386. This season, Wacha has limited right-handed batters to a .326 slugging percentage, and it’s all thanks to the cutter.
Back on June 4, Wacha allowed one run with five strikeouts in seven innings in a win over the Dodgers, and he threw 24 cutters in that game. Nineteen of those were strikes, and the Cardinals went 2-for-7 when putting those balls in play. Let’s take a look at three of them.
The first is a second-inning strikeout of Alex Guerrero. Wacha has him in a 1-2 hole, and he does a great job of burying the cutter low and away. Guerrero has no chance of hitting this pitch, and he’s perfectly set up to flail at it.
The next is a Kike Hernandez groundout. Again, Wacha is ahead in the count, this time 0-2. Again, he’s going away from the hitter. He doesn’t get this one as low as he wants it, but it’s the right spot east-west, and with the hitter so far behind in the count, he’s in full-on protect mode. All he can do is tap it weakly right in front of the plate.
While Wacha does use the cutter against righties more frequently, he’ll use it against lefties, as well. He does so here against Yasmani Grandal on the first pitch to get ahead in the count. Grandal would eventually fly out to end the inning.
It’s no surprise that a pitcher as successful and respected as Wainwright is starting to have other pitchers branch off of him. The veteran still has good years ahead of him, but he may have groomed a new staff ace in Wacha.
Pitchers of the Week
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: 14 2/3 IP, 1 W, 26 K, 1.84 ERA, 0.82 WHIP
Sale was utterly dominant yet again, kicking off the week with a 14-strikeout performance against the Astros. He sat through two rain delays, and ended up allowing just one run on five hits in eight innings to go along with his 14 whiffs. He was saddled with the loss in the series finale in Tampa over the weekend, but that was though no fault of his own. Sale struck out 12 more batters in that game, allowing two runs on three hits in 6 2/3 innings. It was his fourth straight start with at least 12 strikeouts, and his fifth straight in double-digits. All told, Sale has 61 strikeouts in his last 37 1/3 frames. His next start is Friday against the Rangers.
Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals: 15 2/3 IP, 1 W, 23 K, 2.30 ERA, 0.70 WHIP
Scherzer’s first start last week was actually bad by his standards—the Yankees got to him for four runs and eight hits in 6 2/3 innings, though he did manage to strike out seven. He washed away that outing over the weekend, posting the single best start by any pitcher in 2015. Scherzer was perfect through six innings in Milwaukee, before allowing a Carlos Gomez single in the bottom of the seventh. That was the only hit he surrendered all game, and he struck out a season-high 16 batters in Washington’s 4-0 win. Scherzer earned a game score of 100, becoming the 12th pitcher in MLB history to reach the century mark. The last to do it was Clayton Kershaw when he no-hit the Rockies last season, while the best game score ever belongs to Kerry Wood. His 20-strikeout game against the Astros in 1998 was good for a game score of 105. Scherzer’s next start is Friday against the Pirates.
Chris Heston, San Francisco Giants: 14 IP, 1 W, 17 K, 1.29 ERA, 0.79 WHIP
It’s a pretty safe bet that a pitcher who throws a no-hitter will be one of the Pitchers of the Week, though Heston had to contend with some tough competition to make the cut. Heston tossed that no-no against the Mets, in which he hit three batters and struck out 11, but he nearly lost his position atop the Hitting Report over the weekend. He danced around 11 baserunners (seven hits, four walks) to allow two runs in five innings against the Diamondbacks on Sunday. He took the loss in that game, though he did provide some value for his fantasy owners with six strikeouts. Even with the no-hitter on his resume, Heston is a spot starter in shallow leagues, and a depth pitcher in leagues with 14 or more teams. He’ll take the ball against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Friday.
Pitchers of the Weak
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: 1/3 IP, 1 K, 216.00 ERA, 21.00 WHIP
Every pitcher has bad days during the season, but we never expect to see someone like Hernandez among the worst pitchers in a given week. He suffered though the worst outing of his career, allowing eight runs on five hits and two walks while getting just one out against the Astros last Friday. He tied career worst for earned runs allowed and shortest start, though the first time he left after just 1/3 of an inning was due to injury. Hernandez has now allowed 16 runs in his last 12 innings, increasing his ERA to 3.38 from 1.91 in just three starts. He’ll toe the rubber against the Giants on Wednesday.
Collin McHugh, Houston Astros: 3 IP, 1 K, 24.00 ERA, 3.67 WHIP
Hernandez got to take out his frustrations vicariously through his teammates’ bats just 24 hours later. After the Astros shelled Hernandez on Friday, the Mariners got payback against McHugh on Saturday. They tagged him for eight runs on nine hits and two walks in three innings, ultimately coasting to an 8-1 win. Five of the eight runs came in the first inning, punctuated by Logan Morrison’s three-run bomb. Morrison got him again two innings later, this time for a two-run job. McHugh has allowed at least three runs in each of his last five starts, and at least four in five of his last nine. He now has a 5.08 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 79 2/3 innings this season. He’ll next take the ball on Thursday in Colorado. McHugh’s owners would be wise to keep him on the bench for that start.
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: 3 1/3 IP, 4 K, 16.20 ERA, 3.00 WHIP
When the Nationals drew up their plans for world domination this offseason, they certainly didn’t include Stephen Strasburg on the DL and Zimmermann sporting an xFIP greater than 4.00 and 1.38 ERA in the second week of June. That’s exactly where things stand after the Brewers roughed up Zimmermann in his home state over the weekend. At first, it was just Aramis Ramirez victimizing the Washington starter, driving in three runs with a pair of doubles in the first and third innings. The wheels came completely off in the fourth, when he allowed three more runs, exiting the game after allowing a two-run single to Jonathan Lucroy. Zimmermann simply isn’t living up to his 2014 performance as he makes a push for a big contract this coming offseason. His next start is Wednesday against the Rays.
Buy, sell or hold
Buy: Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals
Garcia made an appearance in this week’s Waiver Wire column, but it’s necessary to drive home the point of just how under-owned he is, given all the circumstances. Rarely can a fantasy owner get a pitcher as good as Garcia, at this stage of the season, essentially for free. Garcia is still available in more than half of the fantasy leagues out there, and that’s lunacy. He’s pitching quite well this season, racking up a 2.06 ERA, 2.92 xFIP and 0.89 WHIP in 35 innings. As usual, he’s getting a ton of ground balls, and even though his 65.3% ground-ball rate is probably unsustainable, we know he’ll be north of 55% all season. Injuries are always a concern with him, but, again, in most cases you only have to give up the worst player on your roster to get Garcia. Go and take a look at your roster right now, top to bottom. Without looking at it myself, I can guarantee there’s someone on there worse than Garcia for nine out of 10 of you reading this column.
Sell: Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
There are a few points to understand before setting out to trade Teheran. First of all, no one is going to give you close to his draft-day value, nor should they. Teheran has been among the most underachieving starting pitchers this year. Second, this is as much about selling his chances of rounding into form this year as it is about selling the player. Teheran hasn’t shown anything that would suggest he’s going to pitch like the guy he was in 2013 or 2014 at any point this season. Having said that, he has strung together a few decent outings in a row, most recently a 7-inning, 3-run, 7-strikeout performance against the Padres. Every fantasy league in the world has an owner or two who are absolutely desperate for pitching right now. Those owners may be able to talk themselves into Teheran at the right price. He has a plus-matchup against the Red Sox in his next start on Tuesday, so the window to trade him may swing wide open this week. If he pitches well in Boston, you’ll definitely want to initiate trade talks.
Hold: Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays
Odorizzi left his last start, which came about 10 days ago, after just 4 1/3 innings because of an oblique injury. The news since then has all been good, and he looks ticketed for a return to the Tampa Bay rotation in either late June or early July. He played catch at 60 feet on Sunday, making 25 throws in his first real baseball activity since going on the DL. He reported no issues after the session, and will play catch again on Monday. Assuming that also goes well, he’ll get back on the mound either later this week or early next week. The entire Tampa Bay rotation has been snakebit this year, but it appears Odorizzi avoided a serious injury. His fantasy owners shouldn’t be concerned, but should monitor his velocity if the Rays decide to send him out for a rehab outing or two. If the velocity is good, that means the oblique is, as well.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
It’s not just promotions to the majors that catch the eye of the Prospect Watch. When a big-name prospect moves up to Triple-A from Double-A, that’s worth noting, too. Nola earned a bump to Triple-A Lehigh Valley from Double-A Reading over the weekend, putting himself on a path to be in Philadelphia later this season, especially with the team almost certain to be out of the playoff race.
The 22-year-old Nola entered this season as the No. 37 prospect at MLB.com, No. 39 at Baseball America, and No. 60 at Baseball Prospectus. He dominated in the Eastern League, amassing a 1.88 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 0.89 WHIP and 59 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings. Unlike many big pitching prospects, Nola does not have a huge arm. His fastball sits in the low-90s, and he has never racked up gaudy strikeout totals. He relies on his command to get outs, and that he has such a sharp sense of it at just 22 years old bodes well for his future. The most common struggle for a young pitcher in the majors is command, but that doesn’t figure to be an issue for Nola when he makes it to the show.
Nola’s unlikely to make it to Philadelphia with enough time in the 2015 season to make a fantasy impact this year, but he’s likely to start next season in the Phillies’ rotation. He’s likely owned in dynasty leagues at this point, but owners in deep keeper leagues will want to keep him on their radar for the rest of the season. If and when he does get the call, he’d be immediately relevant in all leagues.
GIF of the Week
The GIF of the Week has to belong to Scherzer, who threw unquestionably the best game of the season, even while another pitcher had a no-hitter in the same week. Scherzer’s 16 strikeouts against the Brewers were both a career high and a Washington/Montreal franchise record. Here’s the record-setting whiff.
- Dallas Keuchel
- Masahiro Tanaka
- Francisco Liriano
- Jake Arrieta
- Matt Harvey
- Michael Wacha
- Tyson Ross
- Trevor Bauer
- Anibal Sanchez
- Garrett Richards
- Scott Kazmir
- Noah Syndergaard
- Carlos Rodon
- Gio Gonzalez
- Andrew Cashner
- Edinson Volquez
- Chris Young
- Wei-yin Chen
- Jose Quintana
- Taijuan Walker
- Aaron Harang
- Jered Weaver
- Tanner Roark
- Charlie Morton
- Yovani Gallardo
- John Lackey
- Julio Teheran
- Carlos Frias
- J.A. Happ
- Tim Lincecum
- Jesse Hahn
- Rick Porcello
- Vincent Velasquez
- Brett Anderson
- Alex Colome
- Tim Hudson
- Tsuyoshi Wada
- Matt Garza
- Nathan Eovaldi
- Tom Koehler
- Chris Tillman
- Mark Buehrle
- David Phelps
- Jeremy Hellickson
- Chi Chi Gonzalez
- Kyle Gibson
- Kyle Lohse
- Shaun Marcum
- Trevor May
- Robbie Ray
- Mike Lorenzen
- Erasmo Ramirez
- Williams Perez
- Kyle Ryan
- Wade Miley
- Chad Bettis
- Jerome Williams
- Chris Rusin
- Jon Moscot