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Changing his repertoire may have changed Michael Wacha’s fate

John Romano | After struggling for several months, the Rays starter has increased the velocity on his fastball and eliminated a pitch that was not getting results.
Michael Wacha  meets on the mound with pitching coach Kyle Snyder and catcher Mike Zunino during a loss to the White Sox on Aug. 20. Beginning with his next start, Wacha ditched his cutter and has since given up only nine hits in 15.1 innings while striking out 19.
Michael Wacha meets on the mound with pitching coach Kyle Snyder and catcher Mike Zunino during a loss to the White Sox on Aug. 20. Beginning with his next start, Wacha ditched his cutter and has since given up only nine hits in 15.1 innings while striking out 19. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — The end was near for Michael Wacha. You could see it in his numbers, you could feel it in the air.

The Rays had too much depth, too much at stake, too much creativity to keep him in the rotation much longer. Rich Hill had been traded, Tyler Glasnow had been lost to surgery, Chris Archer was in limbo and Josh Fleming had been sent to the minors. Virtually the entire rotation had been remade during the summer, and Wacha’s time was surely coming.

Except the Rays kept handing him the ball. There was no obvious reason for it. Wacha had pitched for three different teams since 2019 and his ERA was a two-out rally away from being at the very bottom of MLB starters during the past three years.

Yet, inexplicably, the Rays continued to have faith in him.

And look at him now.

The guy who had a 5.88 ERA, who had given up 19 homers in 90 innings, who was allowing opponents to hit .304 against him, has turned in three successive strong starts going into Wednesday’s game against the hot-hitting Blue Jays.

Is it a fluke? Will it be short-lived? Is it really possible that Wacha has put himself in the conversation to be a starter in the postseason? Those are all legitimate questions and, for the moment, they have no solid answers.

But a change in repertoire and a slight uptick in velocity has Wacha looking more intriguing today than he has in a long time.

“We try to look beyond just ERA. There’s so many things that a pitcher can’t control that go into ERA,” said Peter Bendix, the Rays’ vice president of player development. “There’s the timing of hits, whether a routine ground ball is hit right to the shortstop or 10 feet to his left, whether the shortstop that day is Taylor Walls, one of the best defenders in baseball, or a different shortstop on another team that might not be as good defensively. There are so many things beyond ERA that we try to figure out.

“We’re looking at his stuff, his command, his competitiveness, the way he’s willing to make adjustments. With Wacha we saw a lot of positives there before we signed him, as well as through the first couple of months of the season.”

The Rays say they try to look beyond a pitcher's ERA, which partially explains their faith in Michael Wacha.
The Rays say they try to look beyond a pitcher's ERA, which partially explains their faith in Michael Wacha. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Persistent shoulder problems have kept Wacha from ever fulfilling the promise he had as a 21-year-old postseason phenom for the Cardinals in 2013, and his pitch selection has gradually changed over the years.

He went from being a fastball/changeup pitcher to a guy using a cutter nearly one-third of the time earlier this year. The problem is the cutter had become his least effective pitch, at least statistically, with hitters posting a .376 batting average against it. The average speed of the cutter (89 mph) was not that different from his changeup (87 mph), which meant the hitters were not having their timing disrupted.

So Wacha appeared to ditch the cutter three starts ago and is now going back to the fastball/changeup combo with the curveball figuring more prominently than before, which gives him three distinct speeds on his pitches. The fastball has also picked up a little more velocity after hovering in the 92- to 93-mph range in June and July.

“He’s only thrown a handful of (cutters), but that could also be the matchup. If the cutter could be a big pitch against Toronto on Wednesday, I imagine he’ll use it,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But he has found ways to get away from it because I think the other pitches have been so good. The split change is really diving, and the fastball velocity is sitting at that 93-95 mark.”

The willingness to adjust, learn and trust in what he was being told was another factor in Wacha’s turnaround. Bendix said Wacha’s competitiveness and work ethic made it easier to have faith that he eventually would unlock the potential they were seeing.

Not that it’s easy to do when a team in a pennant race and the results are elusive. The Rays had lost four of Wacha’s last five starts before he substituted the curveball and more fastballs for the cutter.

“I was just trying to stay positive through it all,” Wacha said after a recent start. “It was definitely a tough stretch. In those times, you just have to trust that you’re a better pitcher than the results that are showing up. Trust that the results will get better and go in my favor.”

Three starts does not mean three years of struggles are wiped out. Facing the Blue Jays this week will be a test unlike the past few weeks after pitching against the Orioles, Twins and Tigers.

But at least Wacha has again seen the possibilities. And the Rays may yet see more rewards for their faith.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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