By Brian Hall, from Cardsblog.com

Over the last few years, Michael Wacha has struggled with health and longevity after a unique shoulder injury that first appeared in 2014 and resurfaced late in 2016. In the three seasons since the initial injury, Wacha has averaged about 161.2 innings, and it seemed that he would continually run out of steam when August and September rolled around.

However, there are some very optimistic inferences to be made from his numbers last season, and I'm extremely excited to see the type of year Michael Wacha puts together in 2018. The extent of his production remains to be seen, but I predict that Wacha will have more than proved himself by the time the upcoming season ends.

Foreshadowing this Year's Success

It's easy to look at Wacha's 4.13 ERA and say that 2017 could and/or should have gone better, but if you dig deeper this really doesn't accurately represent the important aspects of last season. In 2016, Wacha posted a 5.09 ERA but had a very solid 3.91 FIP.

The following season, he produced a 4.13 ERA - much improved from the previous year and much closer to his FIP - with another solid FIP of 3.63. It's too early to call this a trend, but his improved FIP hopefully indicates further progress in 2018.

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Furthermore, Wacha's 8.58 K/9 is the highest since his debut season in 2013 and represents a huge improvement from 2016. His stellar changeup - against which batters put up a 76 wRC+ - has always been one of his most promising attributes. In 2017, Wacha combined his trademark pitch with increased use of the curveball - which opposing batters produced an absolutely abysmal 18 wRC+ against - to become a much better strikeout pitcher.

Wacha's fastball resulted in a less impressive 122 wRC+, but his average fastball velocity was a career high 95.1 MPH. If Wacha can compound this increase in velocity with improved command, his fastball would round out a great pitch arsenal. Alternatively, increasing the use of his changeup and curveball (which combined for about 30% of his total pitches last year) could compensate for his comparatively hittable fastball and cutter.

Additionally, his first and second half season splits are very similar, potentially indicating that he's grown out of the second half melt downs. In the first half of 2017, Michael Wacha posted a 4.10 ERA with batters slashing .273/.341/.416, while in the second half he posted a 4.16 ERA with a .255/.311/.401 line.

Of course, the numbers aren't astounding, but the key here is the consistency. In 2016 Wacha's ERA /FIP rose from 4.36/3.67 to 7.44/4.68 (albeit in only 32.2 innings) between halves, and in 2015 he followed a stellar first half with a 4.01 ERA/4.93 FIP after the All-Star Break in limited innings.

Going into his age 26 season, the thing I most want to see from Michael Wacha is improvement in the consistency and longevity characteristic of a mature pitcher. Luckily, Wacha is just now entering his prime, so this season seems as perfect a time as any to prove his capability.

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What to be Wary About

The first and most notable red flag in Michael Wacha's stats last year is the drastic drop in quality multiple times through the order. His first time through the order, Wacha mowed down the lineup with a .194 batting average against, 1.67 ERA, and 3.13 FIP. His second and third times through the lineup though, his ERA jumps to 6.25 and 5.66.

This trend can be tracked through the years, too. In his first, second, and third times through the order, his ERA was 4.29, 4.18, 6.12 in 2016, 2.31, 3.18, 4.83 in 2015, and 2.09, 2.79, 5.04 in 2014. Obviously, this is less than ideal for a starter, and this is one of the main aspects of his game that needs serious improvement in order to take the next step as a pitcher.

I mentioned this earlier, but the quality and command of his fastball is without a doubt something that's holding Michael Wacha back. Despite his impressive 95.1 MPH average fastball velocity last season, it was still statistically the second worst year for his fastball. Starting pitchers typically need three quality pitches to succeed, which could very well help explain Wacha's struggle to make it through the lineup multiple times.

I see two ways Wacha could improve his longevity game to game. He seems to have it figured out the first time through the order, so his approach in this situation works. If he could improve the quality of his fastball command, this same approach would likely be more successful deeper into games. On the other hand, it could be a viable strategy to increase reliance on his much better changeup and curveball as the game progresses.

Conclusion

If you think Michael Wacha has been underwhelming, don't sleep on him in 2018. With presumably resolved health issues and extremely promising peripherals, Wacha is my pick of the Cardinals starting rotation to breakout in the coming season.

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