Starting pitcher Michael Wacha has been an integral part of the Saint Louis Cardinals this season. They enter this weekend’s series against the Phillies with a major-league best 43-23 record.
The Cards also own the best team ERA in all of baseball (2.63), and the second best starters’ ERA (2.95). Wacha has been a key to that success, and is shining at the front of their rotation in place of injured veteran Adam Wainwright.
Wacha, just 23 years old, has pitched like a grizzled veteran through his first 13 starts of 2015, and has been the team’s Most Valuable Player during the season’s first half. The righthander currently owns a 9-2 record with a spectacular 2.48 ERA.
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His nine wins lead the Cardinals and tie him for the 2nd most wins by a starter in all of MLB, one behind Pirates’ starter Gerrit Cole. His 2.48 ERA also leads the Cards, and ranks 11th best in the bigs. Wacha is pitching with poise, effectiveness and confidence, and is quickly developing as one of the best starting pitchers in the game.
Drafted by the Cardinals with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft out of Texas A&M, Wacha was regarded as one of the best college arms in the draft. During his three years in College Station, Wacha went 27-7 with a 2.40 ERA in 349 innings pitched.
In his freshman campaign, Wacha was selected as a Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball All-American, in addition to being named as honorable mention on the All-Big 12 Team. The recognition didn’t stop there, as Wacha received third team All-American honors by Baseball America, and was picked to represent the United States on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team after is sophomore season. He even pitched the Aggies to the College World Series, adding to an already impressive college profile.
Upon being picked by the Cards, Wacha made quick work of their minor league system, jumping three levels in that 2012 season. In 11 games with the Gulf Coast League, Palm Beach and Springfield affiliates, Wacha threw 21 innings, allowing eight hits and only two runs while fanning 40. Batters hit a meager .114 off the righthander.
Wacha started the 2013 season with the AAA Springfield Cardinals, but soon earned a call up to the bigs to make his major league debut on May 30, 2013 at the young age of 21. Wacha was near-flawless in his first taste of the majors, pitching seven innings of two-hit ball, allowing one run and striking out six, earning a no-decision in a 4-2 Cards loss against the Kansas City Royals. The Texarkana, Texas native started two more times in June with less than stellar results, and was demoted back down to AAA to get more development.
After some fine tuning, Wacha returned in August to help the Redbirds down the stretch late in the season. Initially starting his first game back against the Chicago Cubs on August 10, Wacha was subsequently moved to the bullpen, where he would find his groove. Five of his six relief appearances were scoreless, and in 10.2 innings, he struck out 19 batters.
“I love showing up to the ballfield every day and putting on this uniform. Being able to go out there and compete for this team, in front of these fans and my family, it’s a pretty awesome experience.” ~ Wacha
Earning a spot back in the rotation, Wacha was strong over the last month of the season for the playoff-bound Cards, and ended the regular season with his best outing of his young career by tossing 8.2 innings of one-hit ball against the Washington Nationals, coming within one out of a no-hitter before giving up a single in just his 9th career MLB start.
Bringing Wacha along for their postseason run, the righty turned in a gutsy performance for the Cards against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2013 NLDS. Down 2-1 in the five-game series, Wacha spun a masterful one-hitter over 7.1 innings, giving up a single earned run, walking two and striking out nine. Out-dueling the Bucs’ Charlie Morton for a 2-1 win, Wacha helped force a Game 5 which the Cards would win, sending them to the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the NLCS, the 22-year-old phenom had more to showcase. He one-upped himself by beating Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 of the NL Championship series, and won the decisive Game 6 that gave St. Louis their 19th NL pennant. In his two starts, Wacha kept the Dodgers off the scoreboard both times. Pitching a combined 13.2 innings, he surrendered 7 hits, recorded 13 strikeouts, and was named NLCS MVP. He became the youngest NLCS MVP since the Braves’ Steve Avery won it at the age of 21 in 1991.
Facing the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 of the 2013 World Series, Wacha held the BoSox to two runs over six innings. Down 2-1 in the top of the seventh, the Cards put three runs across to give Wacha the decision in what would be a 4-2 win. Unfortunately for Wacha and the Cards, he was not nearly as effective in Game 6 of the series, taking the loss after yielding six earned runs in an erratic 3.2 innings, as the Red Sox won their 8th World Series title. Overall, 2013 was a great success for the rookie, and he looked to come back in 2014 even better.
Things didn’t go according to plan, however, as Wacha would go through a bit of a sophomore slump. He dealt with a shoulder injury midway through the 2014 season, putting him out of commission for almost two and a half months. He returned in September to make four uninspiring starts, and finished the year 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA in 107 innings.
When the Cardinals entered the 2014 postseason, Wacha was relegated to the bullpen. Seeing no action in the NLDS, Wacha was finally called upon to pitch in Game 5 of the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants. In a miserable one-third of an inning, Wacha gave up two hits and one walk, then served up a pennant-clinching, walk-off three-run home run to the Giants’ Travis Ishikawa. With that, Wacha’s frustrating 2014 season was over.
Now with this All-Star worthy first half of 2015, Wacha has come back to put to rest any doubts about his shoulder or his pitching ability. Though only striking out 6.7 batter per nine innings, Wacha has used his cutter and changeup to supplement a mid-90s fastball, and is finding a way to get the opposition out with ease. The changeup has been particularly important to Wacha, with 19 of his 62 strikeouts coming via the pitch, according to FanGraphs. Batters are hitting a mere .179 off the pitch.
The 6’6’’ righthander started off this season by winning his first 4 starts, and was 7-0 before losing his first game on May 30th against the Dodgers. Of Wacha’s 13 starts, nine have been Quality Starts, and he has allowed two runs or fewer in 10 of those outings.
Wacha is a candidate to start the All-Star Game in Cincinnati in a few weeks, a well-deserved honor, if he does in fact get the nod. Whether that happens is irrelevant to Wacha, who simply enjoys playing the game. He discussed his infatuation with the game with ESPN.com’s Anna McDonald.
“As I grew older, baseball was definitely my one love,” Wacha said. “The one that I could see myself going forward and playing at the next level. I was lucky enough to go play at Texas A&M and then get drafted by the Cardinals. I love showing up to the ballfield every day and putting on this uniform. Being able to go out there and compete for this team, in front of these fans and my family, it’s a pretty awesome experience.”
It’s easy to see that Wacha loves playing the game. It doesn’t hurt that he’s good at it, too. Wacha leads the Cards into Philadelphia looking to become the 3rd MLB pitcher this season to reach double-digit victories. It will be interesting to see how he fares Sunday against the Phillies. Both of his losses have come in his last four outings, and the Phils tagged him for four runs in 5.2 innings during his only start against them on April 28. However, the Phillies’ bats have gone ice cold since then, and Wacha should certainly benefit by facing their lineup on Sunday.
Wacha will pitch the final game of the series on Sunday afternoon at 1:35, weather permitting.