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Wacha Flocka Flamethrower

In Baseball on October 9, 2013 at 4:26 pm

The St. Louis Cardinals have been powered by rookies for most of the season. But in their biggest game of the season, one rookie kept his team alive — and flirted with history.

As I write this, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates are preparing to square off in Game 5 of the 2013 National League Division Series. The winning team will go on to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. The losing team gets to watch the NLCS on television.

The Cardinals’ season could end tonight, and if it does, it will have ended at the hands of a talented young team that deserves to win. The thing is, it just as easily could have ended Monday afternoon. And the fact that their season will go on for at least one more game is due to the performance of Michael Wacha.

Cardinals fans are lucky to have a pantheon of postseason heroes to glorify. In many cases, describing the moment is unnecessary — their names alone evoke images of playoff glory: Enos, Gibbie, Ozzie, Waino and Freese. But those players are legends. They’re either Hall of Famers (Enos Slaughter, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith), stars (Adam Wainwright) or as close as you can get to “folk hero” in St. Louis (David Freese).

But how does a 22 year-old-kid from Texarkana, Tex. who was pitching at Texas A&M this time last year save a team’s season? Having a mid-90s fastball you can throw for strikes certainly helps. Wacha has thrown his fastball 711 times this season, comprising 64.9 percent of his pitch total. Of those 711, 477 — or 67.1 percent — have been strikes. Batters facing Wacha heaters have little success, producing a paltry .211 batting average and an unimpressive .263 on-base percentage. In fact, opposing batters are more likely to strike out — in 22 percent of at bats — than they are to get a hit off of a Wacha fastball. By the numbers, Wacha’s near-no hitter against the Washington Nationals seems less of a fluke than a demonstration of what he can do with a fastball.

With results like that, Wacha’s fastball has been one of the best among rookies in 2013. FanGraphs credits Wacha’s heater as 9.6 runs above average (FBv), which is good enough for 13th-best among MLB rookies. But the true value of a Wacha fastball emerges when you look at the 12 pitchers ahead of him on that list. Of those 12, 10 are relievers. Each one of those relievers has appeared in at least 39 games, and as many as 76. Only Miami’s Jose Fernandez and Cincinnati’s Tony Cingrani have started any games this season. Fernandez has 28 starts, 172.2 IP and an FBv of 14.3. Cingrani started 18 games and threw 104.2 innings for an FBv of 11.8. But Wacha only had nine starts and 64.2 IP in 2013, yet his FBv is 9.6 — barely two runs shy of Cingrani’s mark in 40 fewer innings. Perhaps most surprisingly, Wacha’s fastball has been more valuable than Shelby Miller’s, St. Louis’s other rookie starter — and Rookie of the Year candidate.

Wacha’s fastball was on display again in Game 4 against the Pirates, and again, it was a main factor in his success. The St. Louis starter threw 96 pitches in 7.1 IP, 65 of which were heaters, and 61.5 percent of which were strikes. His average velocity was 94.9 mph, but his maximum velocity lit up the gun at 97.4 mph. Even as late as the seventh inning, Wacha topped 96 mph. His one mistake was a fastball — a 94 mph fastball, at that — at the knees of Pedro Alvarez, who turned on it for a home run. It was the only hit Wacha surrendered in the game.

With just a few hours remaining before the first pitch, Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole and St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright are limbering up, going over matchups and mentally preparing themselves for what could be their last game of the season. It has all the makings of a pitchers’ duel. But Cardinals fans should remember — they wouldn’t be here without Michael Wacha.

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