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What can Michael Wacha learn from his comps?

Studying platoon splits with Max Scherzer and the Many Strange Birds, part 2

MLB: Game One-New York Mets at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Wacha, signed for one year and $3 million, has been the biggest veteran addition to the Rays this offseason. It’s the type of deal a pitcher takes to partner up with a well-regarded pitching program when he’s looking to rebuild his value and sign a longer deal, and that a team takes when they want a steady presence with upside but aren’t willing or able to pay what it takes to land the more flashy names.

In part one we identified a group of pitchers whose raw stuff had similar pitch shape to Wacha’s in 2020, and it included a handful of those flashy names: Brandon Bielak, Max Scherzer, Griffin Canning, Luke Weaver, Tony Gonsolin, Zach Plesac, and Lance Lynn.

But what are we to do with this list? Player comps are most commonly used in prospect discussions as a storytelling tool — an information-rich way to give someone else an image of what one has seen. What are they good for when we’re talking about a veteran like Wacha?

The answer probably means taking a closer look at individual processes and the results each pitcher gets. Which processes and results are similar amongst them? Where do they differ? What can they learn from each other?

Here are a few zoomed out observations.

1. These are flyball pitchers. Other than Plesac (who got a few more groundballs), each of the pitchers on this list had groundball rates in the mid to low 30s. For some of them, like Wacha, the changeup was actually a groundball pitch, but most of their other pitches were flyball pitches, with enough weight to bring the total profile up.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about being a groundball or a flyball pitch, although flyball pitchers are more vulnerable to the vagaries of home run rates — if you consistently let batters put the ball in the air, sometimes those balls will get out. At the same time, pitching to the extremes is usually a good thing, so I think it’s worth each of these pitchers asking why they get fly balls, and whether they can lean into that even more.

2. All of these pitchers throw their curve more than Wacha. This isn’t saying much, as he only threw seven curves in 2020. Wacha used to throw his curve more, too, with its usage topping out at 15% in 2018. I don’t know why he stopped throwing his curve, but it’s worth noting that all of these other (mostly pretty good) pitchers thought their similar curves were a worthwhile part of their similar repertoire.

If he’s physically able to throw it, I suspect that he probably should think about doing so, especially with how it relates to his pitch mix against righties. Which brings us to the final point.

3. There are a lot of reverse splits here. This is the most interesting pattern I see in this group of comps. In 2020, four of the eight pitchers (Wacha, Bielak, Canning, and Lynn) had reverse splits by xFIP and one (Weaver) had no split. Jumping out to career wOBA numbers, four pitchers (Wacha, Bielak, Canning, and Plesac) showed reverse splits, while one (Gonsolin) showed a smaller than average normal split.

Put simply, there was a lot more reverse splits in this group of similar pitchers than we expect in the general population.

Which is interesting! Of note, Wacha is the only pitcher of the batch who has put together a long enough and consistent enough career’s worth of reverse splits for us to regress his stats and expect a reverse split going forward. That means that the splits question is of special import to the team who just signed Michael Wacha.

So what is it about this group of right-handed starters that makes them relatively strong against lefties and relatively weak against righties?

Mixing up the right foot with the left

Now let’s get granular, starting with the click-bait reference that got you to read part one. Max Scherzer has a wider than average normal split, and is the only pitcher in this group that is not in any way implicated as potentially having a reverse split. And the obvious reason why lies in the ways he differs from other pitchers in this group. Scherzer throws both a slider and a cutter.

As we previously discussed, the distinction between sliders and cutters isn’t always perfectly clear. Sometimes a pitch moves a little bit more and sometimes it moves a little bit less, and the velocity of the two offerings can overlap in the middle. But Scherzer actually does something that can help us be super confident that it really is two different pitch types, and that he’s in control and intentional about which one he’s throwing when: he segregates his usage by batter handedness.

These days he only throws the cutter against lefties, bringing it in on their hands (bottom half of the zone) and onto their back foot. He only throws the slider against righties, dropping it down and away off the zone. It’s a similar location, but it’s a different pitch with a different shape.

Neither Wacha, nor any of the rest of the guys on this list seem to have have that flexibility. They instead must take a single hard gloveside breaking pitch — their cutter — and use it two ways. And cutters are weird. While they don’t necessarily show a per-pitch reverse split (that is, cutter outcomes are generally better against same-handed hitters), there is some evidence that in the total context of a pitch mix, cutters help more against opposite-handers than they do against same-handers.

The way Wacha used his three main pitches in 2020 is a great illustration of how that might work.

He threw his changeup to the same general area of the zone: down and in to righties and down and away to lefties, breaking away from the plate in either case. In both instances, this is a putway pitch, located to pick up swings and misses (which Wacha’s did).

While his fastball went to different sides of the plate depending on who he was facing, it kept the same relative location, often being located away from the batter.

But the cutter did a different job depending on who he was throwing it to. Against righties, he tried to drop it off the bottom outside corner, away from the bat (like what Scherzer does with his slider).

Wacha Cutters vs RHB
Brooks Baseball

But against lefties, he brought it all the way up and in on the hands (like what Scherzer does with his cutter, but more consistently up).

Wacha Cutters vs LHB
Brooks Baseball

The most difficult pitcher to categorize on this list is Lance Lynn. Yes he showed a reverse split in 2020, but that was the first of his career, and only over 84 innings. Given that Lynn has a long history of wider than average normal splits, this 2020 blip would normally be worth discarding entirely, except that it coincided with a significant drop in his groundball rate, which brought him all the way (over two years) from a mid-40% groundball rate pitcher to a 36% groundball rate guy in 2020 — which puts him right in line with the rest of the pitchers on this 2020 similarity score list.

I imagine that both of these changes were being driven by a diminished role for his sinker (yes, Lynn throws a sinker — think of it as comparable to the rest of these guys’s changeups, at least as far as the algorithm is concerned) and an expanded role for his cutter.

Lance Lynn pitch percentages
Brooks Baseball

Basically, as he started throwing more cutters, and throwing them in on the hands, he produced more fly balls and the first reverse split of his life.

So maybe, when Lynn pitches more like Wacha, he struggles (relatively) against righties. The question becomes then, does it work in the other direction. If Wacha were to pitch more like Lynn, would he improve against righties?

I doubt Wacha can simply wake up and throw his 87 mph change as a 92 mph sinker, but maybe it’s worth remembering that there is some similarity here between the two, and occasionally treating the hard changeup as a primary pitch. Lynn threw his sinker to similar spots (down and in to righties) as where Wacha located his changeup, but Lynn did it a lot more, topping out in 2018 with 42% sinkers when he fell behind a batter. Wacha may be able to use his changeup more to rightes, including when he doesn’t have it perfectly set up.

The other thing I note is that Lynn ramped up the usage of his curve to righties once he got to two strikes, and he was rewarded with whiffs (his highest percentage of any pitch in 2018 and 2019). He threw both his cutter and his curve to the same spot (down and tailing away, often off the plate), and both pitches were successful there in a way Wacha’s cutter was not. I suspect there is an interaction between hard and soft pitches in the same region that helped keep batters off guard.

As stated before, it may be worth bringing that curve back.

Griffin Canning, too, has had success against righties with his curve (41% whiff/swing, per Brooks), but it’s worth noting that while the movement is similar to Wacha’s curve, Canning’s is much harder, at 86 mph, and most people would probably call it a slider. Still, Canning has another, harder breaking pitch that he throws in the same spot, so this too is another example of two breaking pitches, both off the corner, presenting the batter with a more confounding interaction.

Conclusion: the Great Balancing Act

Michael Wacha has an interesting set of similar pitchers to him by 2020 pitch shape. They’re mostly good pitchers, but there’s a suggestion in this group of righties that maybe Wacha’s stuff is better suited for facing opposite-handed lefties than it is for getting out same-handed righty batters.

My hypothesis is that while his cutter is great for jamming lefties up and in on their hands, it’s not an ideal pitch for sweeping away from them off the outside bottom corner. The pitchers in the group who were toughest against righties reached their success either by not throwing their cutter to that spot at all (Scherzer, who throws a slider instead), or by throwing it in tandem with another breaking pitch (Lynn, Canning, others not featured). Meanwhile, Wacha went the other direction, almost entirely abandoning his curve in 2020.

I’m not sure if this is really something Wacha can learn from his peers. It’s possible that with a return to consistent health and with the Rays’ pitch optimization expertise Wacha could learn to slow his cutter down and play up the breaking movement when he wants to. Pete Fairbanks did something of the sort with his slider before the 2020 season.

But generally speaking, “Make your hard breaking pitch better” isn’t the most useful advice, and while “throw your curve more” sounds actionable, I don’t know why he stopped throwing his curve in the first place. It could be that the decision was physical, and Wacha has definitely had his share of injury troubles. Some games you can’t win ‘cause you play against you.

But the bottom line is that most of the pitchers that are closely similar to Wacha are good pitchers; and still only 29, Wacha himself has been a good pitcher in the recent past. It’ll be fascinating to watch as his process evolves with the Rays over the course of the season.