As Michael Wacha took the mound in the 1st inning of Saturday’s start against the Brewers one of the Cards’ announcers made the statement that last year Wacha was on his way to making the All-Star team before he got hurt. Indeed, he was. When he went on the D.L. in June last season he was 8-2 with a 3.20 ERA. Say what you want about pitcher wins and ERA but players and managers care about those sorts of things when deciding on who gets to pitch in the All-Star game.
The thing is, though, Michael Wacha didn’t pitch all that great even when he was healthy in 2018, at least, depending on your perspective. This is based on the fact that one can view a pitcher’s performance through at least 2 different lenses. One is through the ERA-lens – that pitchers are held responsible for the runs they allow, regardless of how they allow them. ERA matters and Wacha should be recognized for allowing relatively few baserunners to score. Fangraphs has a version of WAR that uses ERA as its baseline and this BIP-version had Wacha as a 1.5 fWAR pitcher in just 84 innings. Pretty damned good.
The other lens is based on FIP, which basically takes the view that pitchers should be held responsible for the things that they can directly control – walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Pitchers have little control over balls once they leave the bat and so they shouldn’t be held accountable for bad luck or poor defense. Though this lens, which uses FIP as its baseline, Wacha’s fWAR was just 0.8 wins in those 84 innings. That’s a difference of nearly a win in less than half a season.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between ERA and FIP. It’s not true that pitchers have literally no influence on batted balls. Some pitchers give up hard contact and some give up soft contact and those who give up hard contact give up more hits and extra base hits than those who give up soft contact. This is why we look at things like exit velocity, launch angle, and barrels when comparing pitchers. It’s also not true, however, that pitchers should be held responsible for absolutely all the results that occur on batted balls. Randomness is a thing. Pitchers who pitch in front of good defenses end up with better results than those who pitch in front of bad defenses, etc. (Back to this later.)
The reason for this difference is that, despite Wacha’s 3.20 ERA in 2018, his FIP was a very mediocre 4.22. So while Wacha’s ERA was in the same neighborhood as pitchers who had really good seasons like Patrick Corbin, Zack Wheeler, and Jameson Taillon, his FIP tells us he really had a very pedestrian season like Gio Gonzalez (who just signed a minor league deal, by the way), Jake Arrieta, and Tanner Roark. These guys are basically #4 or #5 starters nowadays, not All Stars.
When Wacha first came up from the minors, he was dominant and was thought by many to be the next great Cardinal starter. He was phenomenal in those 2013 playoffs – he had only thrown 64 major league innings to that point – and was the NLCS MVP in leading the team to the World Series. We all thought he would be a star. And then he was very good in 2014 and has seemed to get a little bit worse each year, ending with just 84 innings pitched in 2018. And now he’s essentially the team’s 4th starter in what amounts to his walk year before becoming a free agent.
He started game 4 against the Brewers and, much like in 2018, his outing seemed really good at first look – 6 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 4 walks, 7 strikeouts. Sure, the 4 walks isn’t good but 4 hits and 1 run in 6 innings definitely is. That’s a 1.50 ERA in his first 2019 outing. What was his FIP? 4.77 because of the 4 walks. I tweeted after the game that his first outing in 2019 was so 2018 Michael Wacha…doesn’t look all that great on paper but ended up with really good results. Maybe he is just a guy who can outpitch his peripherals. Maybe ERA is the way to evaluate Wacha rather than using FIP.
A few weeks back I was listening to the MLB Statcast podcast and the first part of the episode was all about some Cardinals’ pitchers who were affected differently in 2018 by the team’s infield defense. They focused primarily on Wacha and Luke Weaver. They looked at how Cardinal pitchers’ results on ground balls in compared to their expected results in 2018. One of their findings was that Michael Wacha’s wOBA on ground balls in 2018 was .154.
Meanwhile, his expected wOBA on ground balls in 2018 was .242. In other words, he got a lot more outs on ground balls in 2018 than he should have based on the number of batted balls and the exit velocities on those ground balls. No pitcher in baseball had a larger difference between his actual results and his expected results than Michael Wacha did.
What does this mean? It could mean that Wacha’s defense performed much better for him than it did for other Cardinal starters and much better than other teams’ defenses performed for their starters. It could just mean that he was lucky in that batters hit balls exactly where fielders were positioned and didn’t find holes the way they did against other pitchers. It could mean, I suppose, that the team just did a really good job of positioning its fielders when Wacha was on the mound, though that would raise the question of why they weren’t as good at positioning their fielders when other Cardinal starters (such as Luke Weaver, for example) were on the mound. The bottom line is that, based on Wacha’s expected results, his actual results probably shouldn’t have been as good as they were.
So which Michael Wacha does the team have? Is it the ERA-guy who gives up some hits and walks but manages to limit the runs he gives up? This guy probably leaves more runners on base then we might like but manages to wriggle out of those situations by pitching well out of the stretch, getting through 5 or 6 innings, giving up just a run or 2. Or is it the FIP-guy who really isn’t as good as last year’s results seem to indicate, whose results will probably catch up to him at some point simply because he does find too many bats and give up too many base runners? This will be important for the team to decide going forward if it’s going to challenge for a playoff spot (especially if Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes remain in the bullpen) and as Wacha heads to free agency in the offseason.
Though Wacha’s ERA in 2018 was just 3.20, the Statcast numbers don’t leave me that optimistic. His expected wOBA was .350 where MLB average was just .314. His hard hit rate was 36.6 where the MLB average was 35.3. His hard hit rate was 7.7 where the MLB average was 6.1. His walk rate was 10.1 where the MLB average was 8.5 and his strikeout rate was 20.0 where the MLB average was 22.3.
I will buy the notion that Wacha is a perfectly serviceable 4th starter capable of running out there for 150-160 innings this season, 5 or 6 innings at a time and giving up 2-3 runs per game. He’s fine. But Wacha is not a guy we can probably count on to be an All-Star. He’s a guy that Mike Shildt should be looking to pinch hit for in the 5th or 6th (as he did Saturday) rather than trying to see if he can successfully get through the 7th. He’s probably not the guy and will never be the guy we all thought we were getting back in those 2013 playoffs.
Stats come courtesy of the great Fangraphs, Baseball-reference, and Baseball Savant.
Thanks to the great @cardinalsgifs for the fantastic pic. It’s the perfect pic to go with my “which Wacha are we getting” theme.
Thanks to all of you for reading.