The Rays aren’t a multitude for the time being, however at 9-8, they aren’t nice, both. For a proof, look no additional than their beginning rotation. Chris Archer is on the Injured Checklist with a proper forearm pressure, Ryan Yarbrough has been BABIP’d to demise, and veteran Rich Hill isn’t racking up strikeouts like he used to. Tyler Glasnow is doing, effectively, Glasnow things, however he alone can’t repair the Rays’ pitching woes.
It’s not as if the Rays are common by intent, although. They’d ideally have held onto Snell and Morton, however budgetary constraints led them to make odd transactions in hopes of remaining aggressive. Attempting to squeeze out yet one more high quality yr from Wealthy Hill? Undoubtedly a Rays transfer. Bringing again Chris Archer? Ditto. So is signing… Michael Wacha?
One is in contrast to the others. There’s clear upside in Hill and Archer, however through the offseason, Wacha appeared like a run-of-the-mill choice. He had a career-worst 6.62 ERA in 2020, and whereas his peripherals have been higher (a 5.25 FIP, a 4.30 xFIP, a 3.99 SIERA), they aren’t precisely admirable numbers. But, the Rays caught with him. And after two tough begins, Wacha managed to close out the Yankees over six frames with 9 strikeouts final Friday.
Fortunate? Perhaps. The Yankees’ offense is struggling, in spite of everything. However the Michael Wacha of now could be the results of a number of refinements to his sport. They aren’t as noticeable as Tyler Glasnow including a slider, however they’re there, and I suppose somebody wants to jot down about them.
First, his supply appears totally different. For consistency, each of those screenshots are from Wacha’s begins at Fenway Park. The left one is from 2020; the suitable one is from this season:
At roughly the identical level in his supply, Wacha now assumes a extra upright posture. This alone, nevertheless, can’t inform us what he’s making an attempt to perform. Pitchers alter their motions for a wide range of causes – attaining higher stability, producing extra velocity, and so forth. Fortunately, the subsequent pair of screenshots present a greater clue:
The distinction is delicate, however it appears like Wacha has raised his launch level. Once I requested pitching coach Jeremy Maschino about this, he steered that it might be associated to his change in posture. That made sense. There’s no concrete relationship between the 2 actions, however I think about it’s tougher to generate the required momentum from his unique crouch. No matter makes the method of throwing greater within the zone replicable can solely profit Wacha.
Consequently, all 4 pitches in Wacha’s repertoire – four-seam fastball, cutter, changeup, and curveball – have gained vertical motion this season. The most important beneficiary is his fastball, which, in line with Pitch Data, has added 1.2 inches of vertical break. Mix this enhance with the excessive energetic spin price it possesses (98% in 2020), and in principle, Wacha ought to see an uptick in whiffs by finding his fastballs up within the zone.
That’s not fairly what’s taking place, although. Up to now, Wacha’s fastballs have largely ended up over the guts of the plate, a choice that’s resulted in a .414 wOBA in opposition to them. Perhaps it’s a problem of command, not one thing Wacha or the Rays intend. However that’s not all. He’s additionally throwing fewer fastballs in comparison with final yr, with cutters taking their place.
Initially, this confused me. Starting in 2020, Wacha upped his cutter utilization to treatment the truth that his four-seamer was unexceptional, each motion and velocity-wise. The issue, although, is that the cutter additionally isn’t spectacular! With 3.0 inches of vertical and 1.7 inches of horizontal break, the pitch suffered a bit from an identification disaster. I rise too little to be labeled a fastball-like cutter, but in addition break too little to be labeled a slider-like cutter. What am I?
Seems that this season, Wacha has made strides to resolve the dilemma. A better arm slot has boosted the vertical break of his cutter by 1.3 inches, but in addition, he’s finding it otherwise:
Final yr, Wacha pretended that his cutter was a slider, which labored, I suppose – hitters had a .273 xwOBA in opposition to it – however may not have within the long-term. Now he’s finding it as if it’s a secondary fastball, up-and-in to lefty batters. Doing so permits Wacha to rely much less on his common fastball whereas profiting from the traits of his refined cutter. It’s nonetheless nothing too particular, however it beats nothing in any respect. He’s escaped the no-man’s land of the cutter spectrum, so to talk.
Earlier than taking a deep take a look at Wacha, I assumed he would bump up the utilization of his changeup. It will get whiffs, hasn’t allowed an xwOBA over .300 even as soon as in a season, and the Rays’ pitching philosophy is centered round maximizing one’s greatest pitch. Regardless of all that, Wacha’s changeup price has decreased by 1.7 share factors. What provides?
My educated guess: Due to how Wacha’s cutter enhances it, he doesn’t must throw the changeup extra usually for it to achieve effectiveness. To elaborate, the cutter and changeup are separated by simply 0.3 inches of vertical motion. However, by horizontal motion, there exists a whopping 9.4 inches of separation. Contemplate how that seems to hitters. The cutter and changeup initially journey alongside in near-unison, however they close to residence plate, the changeup veers away with out warning.
Now, I’m no Pitching Ninja. I don’t know the right way to create pitch overlays. However the very least I can do is break down the tunneling impact through GIFs. Right here’s a cutter that Wacha threw to Giancarlo Stanton:
Adopted by a changeup:
And right here’s a screenshot of the 2 pitches, side-by-side, earlier than they diverged:
That’s nasty. Stanton didn’t chew on the changeup that Wacha arrange with the cutter, however one other hitter very effectively might have. Owing to how the changeup behaves, the cutter features one other dimension. It will probably perform as a secondary fastball thrown up, however it may possibly additionally stay down within the zone when obligatory. In actual fact, the now-versatile cutter had one other second in the identical at-bat. After the changeup, Wacha went again to the cutter, however this time threw it the place he normally does. A flummoxed Stanton barely fouled it off. With two strikes and a newly established peak, Wacha was in a position to end the job with an ideal excessive fastball:
Lastly, there’s the matter of Wacha’s curveball, which he’s thrown 3.2% of the time thus far to sneak in a strike or two in early counts. That looks like the most effective plan of action. Its motion is simply too below-average to ever turn into an efficient putaway pitch, however on the identical time, abandoning it would scale back the unpredictability of Wacha’s repertoire. It’s good to have a fourth choice.
I do know these aren’t essentially the most thrilling developments. Michael Wacha isn’t any Aaron Civale abandoning his sinkers in favor of four-seam fastballs. However after we’re targeted on the eye-catching shifts, we neglect that for a majority of pitchers, small steps in the suitable course are the norm. They too might be fascinating, so long as we transfer past mere cursory appears. Wacha isn’t drastically totally different in comparison with his outdated self, however he’s added an inch or two of rise to his fastball, optimized his cutter, and continues to throw his stellar changeup.
The Rays don’t want Wacha to overtake himself, in any case. For one yr and $3 million, they seemed to patch a gap of their beginning rotation. So long as Wacha continues on his present path, he ought to fulfill that function – and presumably extra.