Player comparison will be a new installment for Tap-Ins, as two writers will state their case for their respective athletes. In the inaugural edition, new Tap-Ins contributor Pete Blais takes the side of Michael Wacha, while Sean Meyers argues in favor of Gerrit Cole.
Over the past few seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals have developed quite a rivalry. The National League Central foes battled in a five-game playoff series last year, with the Cardinals ultimately advancing. Again in 2014, the two squads continue to battle against each other for a postseason bid.
As the teams battle this year and for many seasons to come, two players who will likely factor prominently into the rivalry are Gerrit Cole of the Pirates and Michael Wacha of the Cardinals.
The two share numerous similarities. Each is 23-years-old, played at least two years of college ball at their respective universities, and made their major league debuts in the first half of the 2013 season. Both pitchers stand tall on the mound and possess high-velocity fastballs, which highlight their arsenals. Also, after showing promising starts to their careers, both have succumb to injuries in 2014.
These pitchers seem to have the potential to be top-tier starters for years to come should they be able to duplicate their finest performances, seen thus far, on a consistent basis. Each player, no doubt, is being looked upon with the intention and hope of fans and front offices alike, of one day being the anchor of their respective pitching staffs. But of course, there’s no debate without an ultimatum, so we must choose only one guy to take with us in the future.
The case for Wacha:
For starters, a couple of physical attributes: Wacha stands 6’ 6” tall, weighs 210 pounds, and throws right-handed. After high school in Texarkana, Texas, Wacha attended Texas A&M, pitching for the Aggies for two seasons. He was then drafted by the Cardinals in 2012 with the 19th pick in the first round (FYI the Cardinals held the pick due to the then-free-agent Albert Pujols signing with the Angels.) Just under a year later, Wacha made his major league debut after quickly ascending the ranks of the minors.
After receiving his initial call-up to the majors, Wacha started a handful of games, completed another brief stint at AAA, provided a hand in the Cardinal bullpen, and ultimately became an integral piece to the Cardinals run to the 2013 World Series. His numbers as a regular season starter are limited due to the sporadic roles he played during his debut season, however, the bright spots were plentiful.
In his rookie year, Wacha appeared in 15 games, with nine starts at the major league level. He pitched 64.2 innings, and gave up 52 hits, five homers, and let in 20 runs, good enough for an ERA of 2.78. He also struck out 65 and walked 19. Pretty respectable numbers overall. To top things off, Wacha saved his best for last. His finest regular season performance was his last one and it came in late September as he lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals. That start would be a precursor of what was to come from the young hurler in October.
With solid pitching during the regular season, Wacha earned himself a spot in the playoff rotation. The decision to put the rookie into that role no doubt paid off as his playoff numbers were ridiculously good. As the playoffs began, Wacha picked up right where he ended his regular season as he tossed his second consecutive one hitter, this time in the NLDS, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wacha picked up the win while striking out nine over 7.1 innings. He also had two masterful starts in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, twice out-dueling Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw. In the those two starts, Wacha gave up just seven hits, and two walks, struck out 13 batters while walking only two. By the way, he didn’t give up a run, either. With those two performances, Wacha earned himself the NLCS MVP award.
He then started game two of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox and went six strong innings, allowed just six hits and two runs as the Cardinals evened the series at one game apiece. In game six of the series however, the Red Sox would not be fooled again and chased Wacha in the fourth inning after tagging him for six runs on their way to the title. Despite his mediocre finale, Wacha concluded his first postseason stint with impressive numbers: 4-1, 2.64 ERA, 33 K’s, 12 BB, nine runs, and 16 hits over 30.2 innings pitched. Not bad at all.
Okay, so with one year in the books, signs pointed to the Cardinals having a stud pitcher in their rotation for seasons to come. However, after Wacha began his 2014 campaign with 15 starts, a 5-5 record, and a 2.79 ERA, he hit the DL in mid-June with what turned out to be a “stress reaction” in the scapula of his right (throwing) shoulder. Apparently, it’s not as severe as a stress fracture but it’s a cause for concern nonetheless for the Cardinals and their young stud. The injury warranted a stay on the 60-day DL and a drawn-out rehab process that continues to progress today. With another postseason berth well within reach, the Cardinals would love to have Wacha back for the playoff push in the coming weeks, although the long-term health for the 23-year-old is surely also a priority. Shoulder and arm health is a must for any pitcher and especially so for Wacha, as he’s so reliant on a dominating fastball.
Wacha’s fastball consistently travels around 92-95 mph and his 6-foot-6 stature causes plenty of down-hill action on this pitch. His best secondary pitch is a changeup, and third is his curveball. Wacha has also shown ability to throw both a slider and cutter, though neither of these latter pitches has been seen with any regularity thus far in his career. In relation to Cole, the two pitchers have similar make-ups in terms of what stuff they throw.
During the 2013 season (rookie year for each pitcher), Cole started in 10 more games than Wacha and the numbers are skewed accordingly. This year, with each pitcher suffering injuries mid-way through the season, the numbers are more comparable. Wacha 15 starts/Cole 14 starts: 2.80/3.77 ERA, 75/83 hits, 28/36 ER, 83/78 Ks, 1.12/1.30 WHIP. Basically, very similar numbers, yet a slight edge to Wacha in just about every category. According to Baseball Cube, Wacha has also been the pitcher with the better control and efficiency though Cole takes the edge in strikeout rating.
While there’s still time to assess just how great or average or anywhere in between Wacha will be for his career, baseball minds alike agree that he’ll need better off-speed stuff in his arsenal in order to taper the reliance on his fastball and become more unpredictable against batters. And of course, a healthy throwing arm is a must for a formidable Wacha. As of right now, with an impressive rookie season, a dominating stretch in the 2013 playoffs in the books, and a mighty-strong fastball and changeup going forward, Wacha certainly would be a prized possession for a team as a third or possibly second starter in a rotation. With good health and improved secondary pitches, perhaps he can be even more.
The case for Cole:
As mentioned in discussing Wacha, the Cardinals hurler holds an edge, albeit a slight one, in nearly every statistical category as the major-league level. Thus, the case for Gerrit Cole’s superiority will not come from what he has accomplished so far, but rather, his potential.While Wacha certainly has the attributes to become a great pitcher, Cole’s ceiling is even higher.
Cole’s greatest and most apparent advantage over Wacha is his velocity. While Wacha’s fastball velocity averages 94 miles-per-hour, Cole’s four-seam fastball registers at just less than 97 miles per hour, an incredible average. Similarly, his two-seam fastball, which serves as a sinker, comes in just a notch below, at 96.5 miles-per-hour. If those numbers weren’t already eye-popping, Cole’s velocity on fastballs actually increased in his brief postseason run in 2013. His fastball scores an 80 on the skill level, as it truly is an elite offering. Also, the sinking action on his two-seamer will allow him to induce a significant number of ground balls, and should also keep his home run totals down throughout his career.
Additionally, while Cole has not yet heavily utilized his secondary offerings with the Pirates, he does boast a more diverse repertoire than Wacha currently. Both pitchers throw a variation of their fastball about two-thirds of the time (Cole uses his four and two-seam fastballs, Wacha utilizing a four-seam and a cutter). The potential divide for the secondary offerings, though, is that Wacha relies primarily on his changeup, while Cole uses nearly an equal mix of his curveball and slider. The Pirates’ righthander also mixes in a changeup on occasion, although this pitch has not yet become a staple in his arsenal.
In two sterling postseason efforts, Cole showed his ability to throw his secondary offerings with success, as he threw breaking balls more than 35 percent of the time. His use of these pitches should expand as he continues to become acclimated to MLB, as they generate his highest whiff rate (swing and miss by a batter), better than any of Wacha’s offerings. As he becomes more comfortable throwing these offerings, his strikeout rates will certainly improve markedly.
Lastly, Cole’s physical makeup should give him a long-term edge over Wacha. Although both pitchers have ideal height (Cole 6-foot-4, Wacha 6-foot-6), Cole has a more developed physique befitting of a power pitcher, while Wacha has a much more wiry, lanky frame. Although both hurlers have already succumb to injury in 2014, Cole could be a much safer bet to remain intact going forward.