10/25/2013 3:49 P.M. ET
Wacha's emergence exemplifies Draft's uncertainty
Cardinals praised for helping rookie righty rise above perceived limitations
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
After Game 2 of the World Series, rookie Michael Wacha is 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in four postseason starts. The buzz about the big right-hander has been enormous, and his legend grows with each playoff performance.
Most discussions about Wacha's emergence late in 2013 have centered on the fact that he was taken with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. The common questions: How did he last that long? Why did 18 teams pass on him?
Following Wacha's win against the Red Sox on Thursday night, it seemed the right time to try to answer those questions. The only place to go was to those who made the decisions in that 2012 Draft: the scouting directors and executives who lined up their boards for the first round.
Most of those contacted for this informal survey said they had Wacha anywhere from No. 12 to No. 25 on their boards at the time of the Draft. Most said they liked him, but they had others ahead of him on the board. Wacha was, it's apparent, Plan B for many teams picking ahead of the Cardinals.
The key reason for Wacha not being rated higher, as has been discussed, was the lack of a breaking ball when he was at Texas A&M. It's still a distant third to his fastball and changeup, and he'll likely have to improve it going forward, but it's clear teams were hesitant to go all in on Wacha because of that perceived hole in his game.
"There are not many right-handed starting pitchers in the big leagues with a fastball-changeup combination," one scouting director said, mirroring many scouts who were polled about Wacha. "His fastball was very straight. He pitched up in the zone, with the ball hit in the air a lot. We thought he would be susceptible to the big fly."
Wacha's fastball, several pointed out, has improved since his college days, with a few ticks of velocity added. A cutter he wrinkled in a bit late in the year also gave hitters another look, albeit infrequently. More than one scout tipped his hat to the Cardinals, not only for shrewd drafting, but for helping Wacha improve. Just because he's only been a professional for a year and change doesn't mean an organization's coaches can't have an impact.
"No, we didn't think he'd dominate the playoffs this soon," another scouting director said. "I think he has improved his mechanics and is throwing about two to three miles per hour harder. It was a great job by the Cards. I really think the Cards' player development staff did a good job cleaning him up. Hats off to them all around."
Kevin Gausman was the first college arm to go in 2012, at No. 4 overall to the Orioles. Kyle Zimmer went No. 5 to the Royals. The next college starter to go was Mark Appel to the Pirates at No. 8. He, obviously, had some strings attached, so some teams weren't going to truly consider him.
Some other teams in the top 10, like the Padres, wanted to go for more upside and potential impact. So San Diego went the high school route with lefty Max Fried.
The White Sox have been known to like college arms in the past, but they took Courtney Hawkins with their first pick at No. 13. Had Hawkins been taken ahead of them -- there had been buzz the Mets might have gone that route -- it seems fairly certain that Wacha would have been their guy. Chicago was also considering fellow college right-hander Marcus Stroman.
The Nationals, who picked No. 16, had Wacha definitely in their mix. They did have Lucas Giolito ahead of Wacha on their board, with Giolito having been a potential No. 1 overall pick before his elbow injury at the start of his senior year of high school. Giolito, the thought was, had a much higher ceiling than a pitcher like Wacha, and the Washington scouting staff still feels it made the right decision.
The Dodgers had taken pitchers with their top pick every year since 2002, so it's not surprising they went with a position player at No. 18, and Corey Seager is a Top 100 prospect with a bright future. They may have just missed Wacha, but their second- and third-rounders (left-handers Paco Rodriguez and Onelki Garcia ) from that year's Draft have already reached the big leagues as well.
"Wacha was in that next tier of college pitcher behind the Appel, Gausman, Zimmer group," a third scouting director said. "Maybe we were more certain he would be a big leaguer, but there was less potential impact without that legit breaking ball for where we picked. His velocity has upticked a bit and the breaking ball looks like it still needs to be more consistent, but the Cardinals did a solid job."
Even with Wacha's success, most of the scouts polled stand by their selections in the first round of the 2012 Draft. It is far too early to draw any conclusions about the round, since it was so recent. The typical draftee takes a lot longer than Wacha did to reach the big leagues, so evaluating now is not a fair exercise.
Second-guessing is a fairly common pastime when it comes to prospects and the Draft. It definitely happened when Mike Trout, taken No. 25 overall in 2009, took the big leagues by storm last year. If 2013 is any indication, the outfielder will continue to make fans, and teams, wonder what happened there.
Perhaps a better parallel would be the 2006 Draft. Because of trepidation about his size and unorthodox mechanics, Tim Lincecum fell to No. 10 despite being by far the most dominant college pitcher in the nation that year. When Lincecum reached the big leagues in 2007, everyone rushed to praise the Giants for their coup, or for their luck in having Lincecum slide to their spot unexpectedly, much like Wacha did in 2012.
Lincecum obviously has been instrumental in San Francisco's success since he reached the big leagues, and the other college arms taken ahead of him -- Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow and Andrew Miller -- haven't been nearly as productive and valuable as he has. But the 2006 Draft does provide a cautionary tale in terms of drawing conclusions too quickly. The Dodgers picked three slots ahead of the Giants that year and decided to go with youth and more upside. Their pick was in the Class A Midwest League when Lincecum arrived.
His name? Clayton Kershaw.
"It just goes to show, there are a lot of couch potatoes that think they can scout and just don't realize how hard it actually is," a national scout said, in reference to Wacha, but relevant to 2006.