The marvelous Mr. Wacha: Cardinal fans may be overlooking his be -

The marvelous Mr. Wacha: Cardinal fans may be overlooking his best season in years

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St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Images) St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Images)

ST. LOUIS ( -- With all the exciting new names thriving on the mound, it’s been easy for Cardinal fans to forget an older one.

Jack Flaherty continues to build his legend, most recently striking out 13 against the Phillies. Jordan Hicks’ jaw-dropping velocity is the talk of the sport. Alex Reyes is on the cusp of a return, and is bringing his all-world repertoire with him. Heck, even Miles Mikolas has become appointment viewing in his return to the majors. It’s an exciting time to be a Cardinal fan. It’s also easy to miss the fact Michael Wacha is having his best season in years.

After Wednesday’s start, his ERA has dropped below 3.0 to 2.88, which is the lowest mark since he finished his rookie season at 2.78.

He now has his best WHIP in three seasons and is looking a lot more like the 2015 All-Star version of himself than the uneven, shaky pitcher battling a confounding shoulder malady that fans saw in 2016 and 2017.

In fact, he looks better.

Compared to 2015 Wacha, 2018’s version has a markedly better ERA, allows less hits per nine innings, less home runs and strikes out more batters.

Opposing hitters have a worse average and slug almost 40 points worse in 2018 than they did against him 2015.

All the advanced stats agree. His Fielding Independent ERA is better, his ERA+ is better and he’s allowing the lowest percentage of extra base hits of his career.

All this is a long way of saying Michael Wacha’s stats haven’t looked this good since his rookie year.

But while the numbers may look the same, the pitcher putting them up doesn’t.

“Two years ago he didn’t really have [the curve] at all. Now the curve is an out pitch for him,” Matheny said.

Wacha’s evolution from a two-pitch phenom to a well-rounded starter has gone through fits and starts, with injury and forced furloughs disrupting the journey. But 2018 finds him a polished pitcher with four distinct offerings he can throw in any count.

In Wednesday’s start he got more outs with his curveball (7) than he did with his fastball (6) or his changeup (5). He worked his cutter throughout at bats to draw ugly swings and set up elegant pitch sequences that kept the Royals off balance.

Take his second inning handling of Alex Gordon, for example.

He opened with a cutter up and in for a ball, then dropped a changeup down and away which Gordon whiffed on.

Then Wacha threw a high four seam fastball in on his hands to saw him off. With two strikes, he tried to get Gordon to chase a low, inside fastball at 93 miles per hour. When he didn’t, Wacha finished the at bat by dropping in a 76 mile per hour curve. Gordon never looked sure of what was coming, and looked completely fooled by the out pitch.

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Watching Wacha now, you see a 26-year-old who can go inside, outside up or down, and throw a breaking ball whenever he likes.

“[With] the cutter and the curve, a year ago those weren’t very significant pitches for him,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Maybe he could steal a strike here or there, but that was it.”

When Wacha first began working on the curve, Matheny encouraged him to throw it often, no matter how it looked. Bounces in the dirt were met with cheers and unpredictable dips and dives were celebrated. Wacha needed the reps to get comfortable with the curve, and the ugly first draft was part of that process.

The young starter workshopped his grip with other pitchers, tweaking and refining how he threw it. As he found an approach he liked, he started to test the waters.

By 2016, Wacha was throwing his curveball 8.6 percent of the time. A season later that number climbed to 11 percent. This season, he’s throwing the pitch more than 15 percent of the time.

Wednesday, he threw it more than any pitch but his fastball.

“It’s just something else to keep in the back of their head. Give them something else to think about in every situation.” Wacha said. “When you’re throwing them for strikes and where you want to, it can be fun.”

And it can get a young pitcher back on track. Wacha now has the 11th best ERA in the National League, just .16 away from joining fellow rotation members Carlos Martinez and Mikolas in the top 10. He’s now gone six or more innings in five of his 11 starts and five or more innings in all but one. He’s been undeniably great, even if the fanfare hasn’t followed his success.

It wasn’t long ago Michael Wacha was the young name fans couldn’t stop talking about. In 2018, he’s overshadowed by Reyes, Flaherty, and Hicks.

He shouldn’t be.

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