I love this quote from Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist about Michael Wacha: "I don't see any reason why there is the buzz about the workload. He had 170 innings last year. You can think he could be a 200-inning guy this year. At the end of the day we need some guys who can give us 200 innings."
Wacha is 22, turns 23 on July 1. His innings total wasn't extreme last year, he's a big, strong kid without any history of arm problems, and he was held back in his pitch counts last season, topping 100 pitches just six times between Triple-A and the majors -- four times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs. His highest pitch count was Game 2 of the World Series, when he threw 114 pitches. Many of his 15 starts at Triple-A Memphis were in the 80s.
When we look back at Mark Prior, the pitcher whose injury reinforced the hyper-sensitivity in handling young pitchers, it wasn't the innings but the total pitches and the string of high-pitch games at the end of 2003. Prior threw 211.1 innings in the regular season that year for the Cubs, plus 23.1 more in the postseason, but he topped 100 pitches in 29 of his 33 starts (including the playoffs) and 120 in 10 starts. Check out his final 13 starts: 116 pitches, 118, 100, 116, 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133, 116, 119.
No wonder he hit the wall in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS.
In his 30 regular season starts, Prior threw 3,401 pitches. Since then, only three pitchers have topped Prior's average of 113.4 pitches per start -- Justin Verlander three times and Jered Weaver and Livan Hernandez once each. Verlander did it at 27, 28 and 29 years old. Prior was 22 in 2003. (Kerry Wood averaged 110.8 pitches per game that same season, by the way.)
So considering the fact that the Cardinals aren't going to be sending Wacha out there for 115 pitches a game, a jump in innings is in order. The question is whether Wacha will be efficient enough to get to 200 innings. He ranked 158th out of 190 starters who made at least nine starts in pitches per plate appearances. Of course, a lot of those plate appearances ended up in outs so Wacha was still able to pitch deep into games.
Now, Lilliquist may not be exactly right about needing a 200-inning guy -- the Pirates, Rays and Indians made the playoffs last season without a 200-inning pitcher and four teams did it in 2012 -- but it certainly relieves some of the stress off the bullpen. And with Lance Lynn, who threw 201.2 innings in 2013, not assured of a spot in the rotation, the Cardinals will need another workhorse behind Adam Wainwright.
In other Cardinals talk, Fungoes takes a look at what Mike Matheny's lineup card should look like.