Michael Wacha was once held up as the anti-Strasburg. And now he’s hurt.

So, I was checking out the Major League Baseball headlines this morning, and one headline in particular jumped out to me.

“Kershaw overpowers Royals”

Big surprise.

“Kinsler set to return to Texas”

Eh, who cares?

“Wacha placed on the 15-day disabled list”

Oh, that’s too bad.

Wait, what? Wacha? Michael Wacha? The 22-year old pitching phenom in St. Louis?

Wacha was the crown jewel of the “legendary” Cardinals player development system. Wacha wasn’t only the Cardinals future, he was their present. In 15 starts this season, Wacha put up a 2.70 ERA and 1.12 WHIP (if you remember, at Nats Park this April, Wacha largely shut down the Nationals lineup over 7 innings). Wacha was supposed to anchor the Cardinals rotation through the summer and into the playoffs.

And now Wacha is injured, with the worst kind of injury–shoulder problems.  History has not been kind to young pitchers with shoulder injuries. Does anyone remember Mark Prior? Cardinals fans have good reason to be worried about their young ace.

While Wacha’s injury is by itself noteworthy, this news grabbed my attention for another reason — a more personal one. It wasn’t too long ago, October 2013 to be exact, that “experts” around the country held up Michael Wacha and the Cardinals as the shining example of roster management–in particular, the Cardinals decision to carefully ration Wacha’s innings over the season to ensure he was available for the postseason. Many of the same experts praising the Cardinals found it necessary to take gratuitous digs at Mike Rizzo and his management of Stephen Strasburg.

Consider this from the Cardinals’ hometown newspaper the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The Cardinals don’t want to name-drop – what other teams choose to do with their young, cherished arms is, after all, their business – but one pitcher is on the tip of the tongue when exploring how they preserved rookies Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and others this season.

That’s because when the Cardinals played Washington in the first round of the playoffs last October, they didn’t have to face Stephen Strasburg. The Cardinals didn’t want to give an opponent the same luxury.

As the first-place Cardinals enter the final sprint toward October they have a lead in the National League Central Division, 19 games remaining (16 against losing teams), and a full complement of available rookie pitchers.

A year after Washington engaged in a National debate by shutting down Strasburg weeks before the postseason started, the Cardinals adopted a different plan. They were going to limit the innings for Wacha, Miller and others, but do so throughout the season – so they wouldn’t be a spectator in September or, if possible, October.

Or this article from Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com:

John Mozeliak never mentioned Stephen Strasburg.

He didn’t need to.

I knew what he was talking about, and so do you. When he said that the Cardinals worked the 2013 program for Michael Wacha and their other young pitchers to make sure they would be ready for September and October, the Cardinals general manager was saying that the Cards didn’t want a Strasburg situation.

They weren’t going to let it happen. They weren’t going into the most important games with their best pitchers sidelined.

“I wanted [Wacha] to gain experience,” Mozeliak said Monday, after Wacha saved the Cardinals season and set up Game 5 against the Pirates. “I didn’t want a workload that would preclude him from being used at the major-league level in August, September and hopefully October.”

The Cardinals treated Michael Wacha in 2013 the way many critics of Mike Rizzo suggested the Nationals should have treated Stephen Strasburg in 2012. Stephen Strasburg, if you remember, maintained a regular rotation schedule until he reached the 160 inning threshold, at which time he was shut down for the remainder of the season. Yes, this required Strasburg to sit out the last month of the regular season and the playoffs, but this was the approach recommended by the Nationals’ doctors, and it was an approach that proved to be successful in the past.

The Cardinals, however, thought they were more clever than the Nationals and Mike Rizzo. For much of 2013, Wacha pitched in a 6-man rotation, limiting his overall innings. The Cardinals gave him not one, but two, extended breaks during the season. The Cardinals essentially decided to “save” Michael Wacha’s 2013 innings until they really counted–the playoffs.

Well. It doesn’t really work that way. Innings pitched by young pitchers are not poker chips to be spent at any time or place the team chooses. The Cardinals approached Wacha’s 2013 workload like a debit card. If we save 30 innings now, we can use those 30 innings later!

This is nonsense, and it ignores medical science as well as common sense. Young arms (and especially recovering arms, like in Strasburg’s case) benefit from routine and predictability. This is why the Nationals didn’t shut down Strasburg for a month in the middle of 2012 or simply have him “skip a few starts” as many arm-chair experts suggested.

In retrospect, Wacha’s workload in 2013 was pretty questionable. Last season was Wacha’s first professional season. Prior to 2013, Wacha was pitching college ball at Texas A&M with a different pitching schedule and season calendar.  You’d think the Cardinals would have used Wachs’s first season as a professional to establish a predictable pitching routine–one he could mimic over a long and productive career. Instead, they decided to jerk around his pitching schedule under the pretense of protecting his arm and maximizing his availability for the playoffs.

Now that Wacha is headed to the disabled list, it appears the celebration in October 2013 was a bit premature.

Stephen Strasburg, by the way, is having a great season and his team is in first place.

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