FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t interested in asking Michael Wacha to make any major changes, and why would they? Their 24-year-old right-hander has already been a postseason hero and an All-Star.
But they are asking Wacha to make one tweak in the interest of efficiency and, they hope, longevity. They want him to throw more cutters, a pitch that might not lead to as many strikeouts as his mid-90s fastball or cartoon-like changeup, but that could lead to quicker outs and more innings.
Wacha seemed to hit a wall last September -- that month, he had a 7.88 ERA, his strikeout rate plummeted and his walk rate skyrocketed. If Wacha strikes out fewer batters this season, the Cardinals wouldn't necessarily consider that a disappointment. In this case, they’d rather see lower pitch counts than more strikeouts.
“I know, analytically, that probably wouldn’t hold water, but for us, running a pitcher like Michael deeper into games is going to help our odds of winning,” manager Mike Matheny said.
The Cardinals have been down this road with a young pitcher before. They often found Shelby Miller’s outings frustrating because his pitch count would elevate quickly with a succession of foul balls. He would be effective but still rarely reach the late innings. Two Novembers ago, they traded him to the Atlanta Braves. They have had similar discussions about improving pitch efficiency with Carlos Martinez.
Wacha said he is on board with the changes, although his 3.21 career ERA doesn't seem to indicate a need for a major overhaul. Last season, according to Fangraphs, Wacha threw his cutter around 13 percent of the time. He considers the pitch a “work in progress,” but said it could be an effective weapon in helping him reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career.
When it leaves Wacha’s right hand, the pitch darts away from right-handed batters and in to lefties. New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera probably threw the best cutter of all time, building a Hall of Fame-caliber career on the one pitch.
“That pitch is a miss-contact pitch. If I can miss barrels with it and get some weak contact with it, that’s all I’m looking for,” Wacha said.
Wacha said he threw a few cutters among his 30 pitches Tuesday against the Twins, when he made his Grapefruit League debut, allowing a run on two hits over two innings. Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar bunched a couple of singles in the first inning, but neither came off a cutter. Wacha worked a breezy second inning, striking out Carlos Quentin with a cutter.
“Michael’s never had a problem with strikeouts since his changeup and fastball are such good pitches, but the curveball and cutter have both come long ways,” Matheny said. “It just deepens what the thought process has to be for the offense.”