Most of us know the story—better, the legend—of Michael Wacha by now. In case you forgot, here's a quick reminder: After the St. Louis Cardinals lost franchise star Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels, they received a compensation pick in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft. With that selection, the No. 19 pick, the Cardinals took pitcher Michael Wacha, who would quickly go on to a spectacular debut in 2013 and a dominant performance in the postseason later that year.
What most of us don't know, however, is the story of Michael Wacha's lesser known twin, who was drafted exactly one year and one pick before him. Before you start Googling "Michael Wacha twin," let me be clear: his "twin" isn't biologically connected to him, nor do they share a birthday. Aside from that, though, they were nearly identical in their first major league action. Take a look:
Player A, as I'm sure you can guess by now, is Michael Wacha and his performance during the regular season. Player B? None other than the budding Oakland A's right-hander with the pencil-thin, blonde mustache, Sonny Gray.
Gray, taken with the A's No. 18 pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, was nothing short of excellent in 2013. Although his postseason sample size is smaller than Wacha's—that's what happens when the A's lineup only manages three hits in an elimination game against Justin Verlander—his first taste of the big leagues was just as impressive.
Yet, the expectations in 2014 seem much higher for Wacha than they are for Gray. For most baseball fans who tuned into the last postseason, Wacha has already become something close to a household name (see: Google Images search for "Wacha Wacha"). He is being drafted, on average, over 45 spots higher than Gray in ESPN's Fantasy Baseball drafts, and he's considered, by some, to be the best young pitcher in baseball (which will always depend on the definition of "young").
Why is there such a difference in expectations for these two young arms? Was it the extra 17 innings of prime-time dominance that Wacha displayed last October? Is it the small-market (Oakland) vs. big-market (St. Louis) effect?
To be fair, it's probably a combination of both of those things and much more. However, you shouldn't be too surprised if Gray finishes this season with better results than Wacha.
Why? Let's start with experience. Gray has a full year of development on Wacha, and pitched a combined 292.1 innings in the minor leagues prior to his debut in Oakland compared to Wacha's 106 innings in minor league ball. Especially this early in a pitcher's career, having more than one full season of professional experience with a sizable workload (150 or more innings) means a lot—for instance, having a better understanding of the season's pace, or being able to make adjustments throughout the season as hitters better understand your repertoire.
Moreover, Gray will have the twofold luxury of playing in one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball in front of one of the best bullpens in baseball (Olney ranks Oakland No. 2). As a starting pitcher, there's little more that you could conceivably ask for.
Aside from the circumstances that Gray doesn't have control over—the timing that he came into the league, home field, and bullpen—he's developed a formula on the mound that is both polished and repeatable. Fellow Beyond the Box Score writer Jeffrey Long wrote about what made Sonny Gray so successful in 2013, citing consistent mechanics and a high ground ball rate that lead to high strikeouts and low walks.
While I won't go into the detail that he did in his post (it's fantastic, so give it a read if you're interested), it's clear that Gray has already worked past much of his early problems—a 4.14 ERA and 3.83 FIP in 148 innings in AA wasn't an auspicious start to his career.
Still, we know Wacha is great, too. And, though it should be a testament to Wacha's superiority that he has not yet shown signs of any weaknesses to overcome, he may be due for some adjustments soon.
In any case, Gray might not be living in Wacha's shadow for long. Both the Oliver and ZiPS projections on FanGraphs place Gray with a better fWAR than Wacha in 2014, giving him a 1.9 and 2.8, respectively, to Wacha's 0.8 and 1.7, respectively. These are just projections, but it's reasonable to posit that the edge would go to a pitcher with a slightly larger sample size of quality work.
Luckily, as baseball fans, we get the privilege to watch both pitchers develop throughout their burgeoning careers, beginning with this season in what will be their first of many full seasons. Who knows? Maybe we'll even be lucky enough to get the chance to see these two face off in October.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.