JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- The first thing observers notice about Michael Wacha this spring was his velocity. The big righty, after spending a second straight winter focusing solely on building strength to protect his shoulder, was throwing hard.
That easy, heavy gas has persisted through three starts so far, an encouraging sign for a pitcher with longevity concerns.
“You could tell the ball was jumping. You could see that. I think it’s just another sign of how he feels. Our task is how do we keep him there? Because where he is looks great,” manager Mike Matheny said after Wacha’s Wednesday outing.
The 25-year-old has now thrown eight scoreless innings, striking out seven. A large part of that, and the reason his velocity looks so much different so far, is his location. Wacha spent much of 2016 unable to bring his fastball down in the zone. While that invites trouble on its own, it had the cascading effect of marginalizing his most effective weapon: his changeup.
“Whenever the fastball is working down in the zone, you can work the changeup off of it, you can work the cutter off of it,” Wacha said. “But when the fastball is up in the zone, whenever [hitters] see a changeup down in the zone, they’re going to sit and not really offer at it.”
Wacha’s tilted delivery makes his changeup especially deceptive, but the pitch is at its most dangerous when every aspect of it presents as a fastball. When the two are clearly delineated by different locations, no one fears the changeup because they can wait for a fastball mistake.
By pounding the low parts of the strike zone with his fastball, it forces hitters to make quicker decisions not only on whether a pitch is a strike, but whether it will sink below their bats because Wacha pulled the string. Once those pitches are paired up, the 2015 All Star will again have one of the most effective combinations in baseball.
Where he goes from there is another important question.
In addition to managing his peculiar shoulder issue, Wacha must still evolve like any pitcher his age. He made hay largely on his changeup early on, but is seeking further weapons to make decision making even harder for hitters. Wednesday saw more cutters and curveballs from Wacha, two pitches he hopes to develop enough to routinely employ this season.
“They had good spin on them. I threw some cutters in to lefties, away to righties for strikes. It’s coming along nice. It’s still a pitch I’m working on, for sure, and getting command on it, but overall, it’s coming along nice,” Wacha said. He also picked up a strikeout on his curveball. “I just try to get the right spin on it and try to work down in the zone with it. I think he might have been expecting a heater there, so if you get good spin on it and work down in the zone, you get weak contact or swings and misses.”
Wacha used his curveball steadily in the first few years of his career, throwing it about 12 percent of time. He leaned especially hard on it in the second half of 2015, as his fastball/changeup combo began to slip near season’s end.
But as he fought his shoulder last season, his curveball drifted out of favor. His usage rate dropped to eight percent, due in large part to the fact he couldn’t fully extend in his delivery. It made the pitch erratic.
“I think with all pitches you need to get out on top of it and try not to cut off on it. Get the natural spin on it. [Last year], I didn’t have command over [the curveball]. Didn’t know too much about where it was going and didn’t throw a lot of strikes with it.”
Given his work this offseason, Wacha’s ability to extend and finish the pitch means he can once again corral it. If he can consistently control the pitch’s location and break, it will become more than a option for hitters to wonder about. It will be a weapon.
“It should be, yeah. I mean everybody is so concerned about the changeup that he can pick his spots for when he’s going to use [the curve]. It’s hard to look for everything,” Matheny said.
It’s the philosophy Adam Wainwright has used for his entire career, and one that has defined Carlos Martinez’s early success. Variety is the spice of life and the nightmare of hitters.
Cardinal fans haven’t forgotten Wacha’s NLCS MVP. They haven’t forgotten his electric start to 2015. A great deal of the rotation’s promise depends on whether Wacha can return to that level. He’s hoping when he gets there, his enhanced repertoire will propel him right past that benchmark.