- Michael Baumann
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In a postseason of beards, bizarre umpiring decisions and an obsession with the games that straddles the line between concern trolling and cultural imperialism, no storyline has been more annoying than St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha, the 22-year-old wunderkind who twice bested Clayton Kershaw and inspired hundreds of thousands of baseball fans to believe that they were the first person to notice that the Cardinals' No. 2 starter's last name was half of a beloved Muppet's catchphrase.
It's not his fault -- Wacha has done great things on baseball's biggest stage, and works such as his often inspire such adulation as we've seen over the past month.
But with Wacha only one full season removed from college, one question persists, and it has been asked over and over in every media that concerns sports: "How did 18 guys get drafted in front of Michael Wacha?"
To ask that question 17 months after the draft is an inadvertent admission of ignorance, so in the interest of preventing people from embarrassing themselves, let’s put this question to bed.
1. How did 81 guys get drafted before Paco Rodriguez? All told, Wacha has thrown 91 2/3 innings in the major leagues. And they've been superb: Let alone that he's won all four of his playoff starts, in which he's allowed only three runs in 27 innings -- he was very good in September too. But 91 2/3 major league innings is barely enough of a track record to determine that Wacha is a human being, much less the best player in his draft class. The playoff starts aren't nothing, but they're the only reason the majority of people who are asking this question even know Wacha's name. If he'd gone two picks earlier, to the Blue Jays, who finished 23 games out of first place, and put up exactly the same numbers in the regular season, he'd have never burst onto the stage the way he has, through no fault of his own.
Don't believe me? Consider the following:
On top are Wacha's career regular-season stats. On the bottom is Steven "Paco" Rodriguez, a relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who is six weeks older than Wacha, beat him to the majors by eight months and went 63 places after Wacha in the 2012 draft. Despite posting very similar peripheral stats to Wacha's, and despite his having a colorful nickname and a distinctive delivery, Paco Rodriguez has inspired no infantile Muppet-based wordplay, and no one wonders how he lasted until No. 82 overall. The major differences are that (1) Paco Rodriguez is a reliever, which doesn't allow him to, say, go head-to-head with Clayton Kershaw and (2) he got shelled in his only playoff appearance and was left off the Dodgers' NLCS roster.
If two months of games are somehow all-revealing when it comes to 22-year-old rookie pitchers, then why isn't Marty Bystrom in the Hall of Fame?
2. We don't know anything about the 2012 draft. Even if Wacha does turn out to be the best player in his draft class, we won't know for some time. In total, 1,238 players were drafted in June 2012, of which six have played in the major leagues at all. Every single one of those six came from the SEC, which is the most advanced amateur baseball league in the world, so the other 1,232 guys probably need some time to catch up. No 2012 draftee has thrown more than 77 2/3 regular-season innings, nor registered more than 193 major league plate appearances. Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick, will be 21 and 11 months (the age Wacha was when he made his big league debut) in August 2016. That Wacha reached the major leagues so quickly is a mark in his favor, but even if the draft were done over today, there's enough unrealized potential in other players that I find it extremely unlikely Wacha would even go in the top five, much less No. 1 overall.
So when can we judge? Well, let's say an 18-year-old draftee takes four to six years to break into the majors. There are exceptions, of course, but most players will remain on prospect lists until age 23 or 24. And after that, how long until he has enough career to judge? Six years, until free agency? By then, we know practically for certain what kind of a player a draftee will be. Realistically, it takes about a decade to judge a draft class. That might not be convenient when it comes to crafting a postseason narrative, but that's how long you have to wait if you want to give everyone a chance to develop. How many of the people wondering how Wacha fell so far will have forgotten by the time Byron Buxton and Addison Russell come up?
3. Michael Wacha isn't the same pitcher he was in June 2012. Potential first-round pitchers exist on a continuum that runs, in shorthand, from Lucas Giolito to Mike Leake. Giolito is one of the 18 players who went ahead of Wacha in 2012, a 6-foot-6 right-hander from California who touched triple digits with his fastball in high school and might have been the first high school right-hander ever to go No. 1 overall if he hadn't hurt his elbow his senior year. He had Tommy John surgery last year and has thrown only 38 2/3 professional innings. He could be a Cy Young contender or he could wind up never making the majors at all. Other low-floor/high-ceiling prospects might be skinny teenagers who put on 25 pounds of muscle and gain five miles an hour of fastball velocity. Still others might have dominated lower-level competition thanks to playing in the Snowbound Wilderness Parochial Athletic Conference, leaving scouts without much of an idea how they'd fare against better competition. Such pitchers tend to be slow to reach the majors.
Leake, however, was at the other end of the spectrum when the Reds drafted him No. 8 overall in 2009. At Arizona State, Leake had performed well against some of the best amateur competition, and he had no notable injuries to overcome, nor did he, at 21, seem likely to undergo any appreciable physical maturation. So he was drafted in June 2009, signed in August and made his major league debut the next April without having played a single game in the minor leagues. The Reds thought they were getting a No. 3 or 4 starter, someone who could throw 180 league average innings a year, and that's exactly what they got.
Coming out of Texas A&M, Wacha boasted good command, a plus changeup and a low-90s fastball. If you've never been to Texas and follow baseball, you could be forgiven thinking that all male Texans grow to be at least 6-4 and are born with a 97 mph fastball, a 12-to-6 curve, soulful blue eyes and a roguish disregard for authority. I've never been to Texas and it's what I believe.
Wacha, despite his height, didn't fit the archetype. On the eve of the draft, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus declared him to be closer to Leake than to Giolito on the continuum. His command, fastball and easy delivery would make him a likely major league starter, but his lack of anything more than a "show me" breaking ball limited his upside to that of a mid-rotation starter. After the draft, Wacha and the Cardinals both seemed to be on board with this characterization -- he'd move through the minors quickly, but his ceiling wasn't that high. That's how he fell to No. 19.
And you know what? It happens. Tom Brady fell to the sixth round of the NFL draft because he was a skinny kid with a 5.3 40-yard dash time and a reputation for not being able to hold onto the starting job at Michigan. It's not as though every team passed on him while he was holding his Hall of Fame bust on draft night, and amateur scouting in football is, by orders of magnitude, a more exact science that amateur scouting in baseball.
So Wacha was a low-ceiling, two-pitch starter last summer, but since then his fastball has ticked up ever so slightly and he has developed his breaking ball into something that's actually useful. The Cardinals are probably the best franchise in baseball when it comes to developing players, and Wacha won't be the last pitcher they draft who will outperform his expectations.
And that's even assuming the Wacha you see now is the Wacha you'll see going forward, that he won't get hurt, or regress at all, both of which are eminently possible. Wacha has about a two-month track record of being the pitcher he has been this postseason, and a lifetime's worth of not being as good before that. It's possible, maybe even likely, that his performance this postseason isn't an aberration, but it's not certain. Even beyond the possibility that Russell, Buxton, Correa, Giolito or 14 other guys might turn out to be just as good as Wacha, and beyond the point that it borders on irresponsible to try to judge a draft class this soon, we might be seeing Wacha's best right now, at this moment.
So how did 18 guys get drafted before Michael Wacha? Because the draft is an inexact science, and there's a lot we know now that we didn't know then. But even though the Cardinals have benefited immensely from Wacha's performance, and the other 29 teams would be glad to have him, there's even more we don't know now that will influence the eventual accounting of this draft class.
Michael Wacha went No. 19 overall because 18 teams liked another available prospect better than they liked him. And if you redid the draft today, playoff heroism and all, many of those 18 teams would pass on him again.
Michael Baumann writes for Crashburn Alley and contributes to Grantland.