Fantasy Baseball: Can Michael Wacha Be a Useful Starting Pitcher?

After a major step back in 2016, can Wacha return to fantasy relevance?

It was the fall of 2013 -- a time where, as a St. Louisian, you expect the St. Louis Cardinals to be playing postseason baseball. Reaching the postseason 11 times since 2000 at that time raises the bar pretty quickly.

Texas A&M Aggies draftee Michael Wacha just went toe-to-toe twice with the Los Angeles Dodgers and ace Clayton Kershaw, firing not one, but two scoreless starts. The sky was the limit on the young right-hander's career, and Wacha followed up that 2013 season with back-to-back impressive 2014 and 2015 campaigns -- 49 starts and 22 wins with a sub-3.40 ERA.

Wacha entered 2016 with high hopes, but it was a disaster. He recorded a career-worst 5.09 ERA and 8.1% swinging-strike rate over 24 starts, eventually getting sent to the bullpen. Now with an injury to young prospect Alex Reyes and Lance Lynn coming off Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals need Wacha to step up.

Can he deliver and become fantasy relevant again?

A Tale of Two Halves

To call Wacha's entire 2016 a disaster would be unfair -- the first half, while not exactly strong, wasn't horrible. The second half was outright difficult to watch, though, and part of that could have been because he wasn't completely healthy following an August injury that caused him to miss some time.

Time Innings Pitched ERA FIP wOBA K Rate %
First Half 105.3 4.36 3.95 .319 20.5%
Second Half 32.7 7.44 4.37 .398 13.8%

Wacha's velocity was down a tick for most of 2016, per Brooks Baseball data, but for the most part, it was in line with historical norms. And there's obviously some health concerns with the disabled list stint, but the real culprit appears to be a pitch he added prior to the season that led to some disastrous results.

Scrap the Cutter

In an effort to add even more depth to his arsenal, Wacha worked on adding a cutter.

The right-hander previously showcased a four-seam fastball, change-up and a true breaking ball, with the first two having the same arm-side run movement to right-handed hitters. With nothing moving the other direction, they could pretty much lock into one half of the plate, so he focused on the cutter to add some glove-side movement.

While in practice it sounded like a great idea, the results were a train wreck. The following showcases the results against his cutter in terms of slugging percentage (per Brooks Baseball data).

That red line is Wacha's cutter, which literally jumps off of the graph.

As far as the why this happened, that part is pretty easy to see -- the cutter is a flat offering that just doesn't move much. Wacha's cutter averaged 2.08 inches of horizontal movement in 2016, and compared to some elite cutters, that's not going to work. Wacha's cutter in the back half of the year seemed to stop moving altogether.

Player Horizontal Movement (in.)
Mariano Rivera 6.03
Kenley Jansen 3.38
Michael Wacha (August-September) 0.55

Can He Find His Groove Again?

Through three starts this spring, Wacha's performance has been promising -- he's fired eight scoreless innings and racked up seven strikeouts. Due to what happened last year, it's easy to forget how good of a pitcher he used to be.

Of the 132 qualified pitchers between 2013-15, Wacha ranked 27th with a 3.21 ERA over 353 innings pitched. If we also look at batting average allowed, his mark of .229 was 19th best.

But due to last season's struggles and the uncertainty about his health (he has only topped 25 starts in his career once), Wacha is the 101st starting pitcher off the board in National Fantasy Baseball Championship drafts. If the Cardinals want to have any shot at dethroning the World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the National League central, they'll need the old Wacha in their rotation. Fantasy baseball owners would like to see that version, too.

Tread lightly here, but he's worth keeping an eye on as the spring progresses given how late he's being selected. He could turn into a major steal if he tightens up his offerings and pitches like his old self.