One of the better stories of the latter part of this past season and the playoffs so far has been the young phenom, Michael Wacha. Drafted in the first round out of Texas A&M just over one year ago, Wacha was considered more of a middle-of-the-rotation type workhorse than a future frontline starter. Prior to the draft he was even drawing comparisons to, Jon Garland, the quintessential workhorse of the past decade. Wacha had the makings of the prototypical low upside, low risk college arm teams expect to move pretty quickly through the minors.
He definitely did move quickly, spending less than an entire season in the minors before making his Major League debut. Interestingly, since being called up to the Majors, Wacha has not only improved on his AAA performance, but has been pitching completely lights out.
Wacha has experienced an uptick in velocity since being drafted most probably due to putting on a few and filling out his previously slender frame, along with a few mechanical refinements*. All of which have led his fastball residing more in the mid-90's range an improvement over its previous inhabitance of the low-90's. Paired with a very refined mound presence and excellent fastball command, Wacha has propelled himself into a legitimate "ace" type prospect.
Additionally, since college, Wacha has added a high 80's breaking ball, to go along with his slow curveball and darting changeup. This is pretty in tune with a recent fad across all of baseball where power pitchers have adopted faster yet lesser breaking balls, whether a slider or cutter, to their repertoires. Due to their relative similarity to a fastball grip and release angle and therefore to their movement and velocity, power sliders and cutters are probably easier to learn to command than other pitches once already possessing fastball command. In other words, the better you command your fastball, the better your command will be over a power slider or a cutter.
While Michael Wacha's future does look to be pretty bright, it does not come caveat free. He very well might be tipping his pitches. While watching his game two start against the Dodgers, I happened to notice Wacha slowing his arm down ever so slightly when releasing his changeup (more so on his curveball) and speeding his arm up when reaching back for something extra, usually on pitches 95 MPH or above. While I do not have the technological chops to prove this to be the case, I'm pretty sure a discrepancy in arm speed does exist.
To boot, Wacha's changeup was being released four inches closer to his body horizontally than his fastball. And while a discrepancy is to be expected, four inches is one and a half inches greater than what has been normal for Wacha so far in his Major League career.
The obvious question for Wacha is how this affects him moving forward. If MLB hitters are already privy to the fact that he's been tipping his pitches why haven't they been able to capitalize on that information and if they haven't yet noticed, will their imminent realization be his ultimate unraveling.
Wacha and the Cardinals are now faced with a pretty serious conundrum. Is it possible for Michael Wacha to speed up his arm on his changeup, or slow down his arm on his fastball without affecting its command, velocity or movement too drastically? Should he completely stop reaching back for something a little extra on his fastball?
Interestingly enough, the Cardinals might have already thought of a possible solution, even if it only works in the short term. Since Wacha's last start of the season, he's reduced the time span between each pitch to below 20 seconds, keeping the hitters on their toes and very possibly mitigating the effects of a slower arm action on his changeup. The hitters are probably so focused on just getting set in the batters box and readying themselves for the pitch, they have nary a second to focus on if Wacha has slowed down his arm just a tad or not.
Though it does seem that Wacha has been tipping his pitches to an extent, we cannot forget that he's looked more than dominating so far in his brief tenure in the majors and everything should always be taken in perspective. To call anything I've noticed in Wacha's arm action something more than a precursor to a subsequent adjustment period, would be jumping the proverbial gun. That being said, it should be an interesting adjustment period and one that bears close monitoring, especially if the Cardinals continue their playoff run.
*Wacha has lowered his glove, eliminated a torso rotation and thigh region prior to his pushing off the mound, he now stands upright throughout the entire delivery and is therefore more balanced. He has a slightly lower shoulder tilt, he's sped up his body and entire delivery pretty significantly leading to a more explosive release. While he does still pronate a tad late, it is lesser than what it was in college and his body is much more in sync with his arm.
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All statistics courtesy of Brooks Baseball.