Texas A&M's Michael Wacha Develops Into Blue-Chipper
Rob Childress said he knew Texas A&M would get a great performance out of Michael Wacha at Pepperdine. A week earlier, the junior righthander had been shelled for nine runs (eight earned) on 11 hits over five innings in a no-decision against Kansas State.
"He certainly had something to prove after last week's performance," Childress said of the K-State game. "He had a chip on his shoulder. I was looking forward to (the Pepperdine game), and he did not disappoint."
Wacha has thrived when he feels like he has something to prove. At 6-foot-6, he was a solid basketball player at Pleasant Grove High in Texarkana, Texas, though he did not garner any interest from college basketball programs. With a mid-80s fastball that peaked in the high 80s, Wacha generated lukewarm interest as a baseball recruit, too.
"I really didn't have many offers out of high school," Wacha said. "I thank coach Childress for just giving me the opportunity to come here. I've been trying to prove that everybody else in the country just made a mistake by not showing interest. I try to play with a chip on my shoulder that way."
When Wacha showed up in College Station as a freshman, Childress began tweaking his mechanics. He wanted Wacha to make better use of his height by shifting to more of an over-the-top arm slot.
"That's one of coach Childress' big things, just staying tall in the back side," Wacha said. "My freshman year, he wanted me to stand taller. He was saying, 'Hey, use all 6-6 of that body. You're pitching like a 5-8 guy right now.' He got me to stay taller on my back side, and it's a little tougher on those hitters, hitting one that's coming on a downward plane."
Wacha also focused on lifting weights for the first time, and his velocity quickly spiked into the low 90s. Childress also "enhanced" Wacha's changeup that year, as the pitcher put it. He was mostly a fastball/changeup pitcher in high school, but the change did not have nearly the tumbling effect it has now before he started working with Childress. By the time he took the mound in the spring, his changeup was his signature pitch.
"It's an outstanding pitch," Childress said. "It doesn't matter whether it's a right- or lefthanded hitter, you can swing and miss on that."
Using a 90-93 mph fastball and racking up swings-and-misses with his filthy 83-85 mph changeup, Wacha went 9-2, 2.90 with 97 strikeouts and 22 walks in 105 innings as a freshman, then went 9-4, 2.29 with 123 strikeouts and 30 walks in 130 innings as a sophomore, when he helped lead the Aggies to the College World Series.
Scouts widely regard Wacha's changeup as a well above-average pitch, but they wanted to see him develop a more reliable breaking ball to go with it. He made some progress with his slider last summer with Team USA, and he has made great strides with a mid-70s downer curve this spring.
"I think the curveball's gotten better and better," Childress said. "The slider's always been there, but his curveball is not just a get-ahead pitch, it's a pitch that he can put people away with. So he continues to grow and improve, and he's awful fun to coach."
Wacha has matured to the point that scouts now consider him likely to be drafted in the top half of the first round this spring, with a chance to go in the top five picks. His track record is as impressive as any pitcher's in this draft class. A national crosschecker who saw Wacha's rough outing against Kansas State said his stuff was fine but the game got away from him in a seven-run second inning. "He's been too good for too long to hold that against him," the crosschecker said.
He was never as good as he was against the Waves. Wacha carried a perfect game into the eighth inning and struck out Tony Cooper to lead off the eighth, but a passed ball and an errant throw to first allowed Cooper to reach second base. The next batter, Aaron Brown, broke up the no-hit bid with a comebacker off Wacha's glove. The Waves loaded the bases with two outs, but Wacha escaped by inducing a pop-up to center, then worked a 1-2-3 ninth to complete a two-hit shutout. He finished with eight strikeouts and no walks, improving to 4-0, 2.25 with 47 strikeouts and eight walks in 40 innings on the season.
Wacha said his goal heading into the game was to throw first-pitch strikes, and he worked ahead in counts all game.
"He doesn't even give you time to breathe," one scout said during the game. "Every pitch is in the zone."
Wacha ran his heater up to 95-96 mph in the first two innings and held his 91-93 mph velocity through the ninth. He got a number of strikeouts with his changeup, of course, and even froze one of Pepperdine's righthanded hitters on an 83 mph slider for a called third strike in the second. He threw just a handful of sliders and used his curveball mostly to get strikes early in counts starting in the middle innings.
"Obviously he commanded all four pitches extremely well," Childress said. "It was an incredible performance."
No, Michael Wacha did not disappoint. He seldom does.