A few days ago, when the St. Louis Cardinals optioned young Michael Wacha back to Memphis, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny did not utter some of baseball’s most frightening names.
He did not mention Tommy John, as in the now-infamous Tommy John elbow surgery. He did not mention young Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg, who already has had Tommy John surgery, and whom the Nats shut down last year to protect him even though they were headed to the postseason.
Rather, Matheny talked about wanting to manage Wacha’s “workload” and a need for him to improve his breaking ball and more effectively work his fastball into the bottom part of the strike zone. It was all perfectly reasonable.
But the Cardinals’ decision to pitch Wacha every sixth day with the Redbirds, instead of taking a turn in the usual five-man rotation, shows both how valuable they perceive Wacha to be and how skittish big-league clubs have become about protecting young pitchers.
Wacha, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound righthander who turns 22 on July 1, once would have been deemed a pitcher built for durability – within the context of a single game, a single season, and over a long career. But this isn’t the 1960s, or even the 1990s.
A star pitcher at Texas A&M, Wacha threw more than 113 innings for his college last spring. After the Cardinals made him the No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 draft, he threw another 21 innings in the minor leagues. With 57.2 innings for the Redbirds (4-1, 2.34 ERA) and 17.2 for the Cardinals (1-0, 4.58 ERA), he already has 75 innings this year.
But all innings are not the same. Just watch the college baseball’s NCAA Tournament and World Series, where coaches routinely ride their pitchers too long and too hard.
“It’s amazing how many innings (college) pitchers throw without proper rest sometimes,” said Gaylen Pitts, a former Redbirds manager who works in player development for the Cardinals. “Strasburg’s a good example. He had a lot of stressful innings (at San Diego State) before they even got him.”
Which isn’t to suggest anyone in the Cardinals organization believes Wacha is destined to have the arm issues Strasburg has had. But throughout baseball, there is an ever-growing sentiment that you can’t be too careful. At SI.com, baseball writer Tom Verducci cited research by Los Angeles Dodgers director of medical services Stan Conte that found 50 percent of all MLB starting pitchers will go on the disabled list every year.
That’s an alarming statistic and yet one more reason the Cardinals planned to give Wacha a full year at Triple A. The reason they didn’t? Injuries to other starting pitchers, of course.
“It was sort out of necessity,” John Vuch, Cardinals director of minor league operations, said of the decision to bring Wacha up to St. Louis, where he made three starts. “We knew with what we saw in spring training he could be competitive.”
Not just because of his talent, but because of his poise. Wacha often is likened to a young Adam Wainwright.
“He’s confident in his stuff,” said Memphis catcher Rob Johnson, who has played in 245 big-league games and says Wacha’s four-seam fastball is his best pitch but his changeup is a strong secondary pitch. “There’s no timidity in him whatsoever when he steps on the mound. Whatever suggestion you give behind the plate he is 100 percent on it, but he also has discernment about what plays into this game and what doesn’t play into his game.
“That’s a sign of a mature kid. He has room to grow and I think he knows that so there’s some humility there.”
So it’s scary to think how good Wacha might be. Shelby Miller-good, Wainwright-good …
“The physical talent is there, the mental makeup is there, great kid, he was raised right, great teammate,” said Memphis manager Pop Warner. “If he stays healthy, we got a nice starting pitcher in St. Louis on our hands.”
“If he stays healthy” being the caveat to every discussion about every good young pitcher from now to forever.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.