FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This spring, looking for an edge in a post-launch angle world, the Cardinals are directing their pitchers to look up. After years of preaching the best place to throw was down, the club is encouraging its pitchers to raise batters' eye levels. High heat is back
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This spring, looking for an edge in a post-launch angle world, the Cardinals are directing their pitchers to look up. After years of preaching the best place to throw was down, the club is encouraging its pitchers to raise batters' eye levels. High heat is back in style.
"Every pitcher can find success there," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But it's a lot to ask."
That may not be truer for any Cardinals pitcher than Michael Wacha, whose clean, two-inning spring debut highlighted Monday's 5-4 loss to the Twins. For years, Wacha has directed his entire arsenal toward the bottom of the zone and below, the natural habitat for a changeup of his caliber. Now, the club wants him to pitch off more fastballs up, despite his heater's slightly below-average spin rate.
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Wacha's frame and mechanics could make him effective up in the zone, compensating for his spin rate. His "axis and his angles," as Matheny calls them, send his pitches toward the plate on what hitters describe as a particularly downward plane. The club believes Wacha could complement that natural advantage by occasionally giving hitters a different look up in the zone, making his overall arsenal more effective in the long run. If there are outs at the top of the zone, the Cardinals don't want Wacha leaving them there.
"His bread and butter is down and the change. A well-located, extreme-angle, bottom-of-the-zone fastball that makes an exceptional right-handed changeup even better," Matheny said. "To then try to elevate, there's an art to it. It's about your mechanics, but it's almost like a different pitch, that high [fastball]."
"I have to raise my sights," Wacha said. "I don't think it'll be too tough. I know I like to establish the fastball down in the zone. I think adding the fastball up in the zone will be really good for me."
Getting more comfortable doing that will be a focus of Wacha's this spring, something to work on in bullpens and the backfields. Wacha pitched up a little on Monday at Hammond Stadium, but after a season over which he went 12-9 with a 4.13 ERA in 30 starts, Wacha's spring debut was more about being back in a game setting again than implementing the change in approach.
Wacha breezed through two hitless frames, walking the only baserunner to reach against him.
"The problem is, for any pitcher, if you have a strong suit, guys eventually are going to hone in on that," Matheny said. "Now, if you're making the pitch up top and it's getting a strike, then all of a sudden the hitter has that in the back of his mind. I think they complement each other."
Second baseman Max Schrock's oblique was healthy enough for him to make the cross-state trip to Fort Myers, though he didn't play Monday. The Cardinals have another game in Fort Myers on Tuesday before going to Sarasota to play the Orioles on Wednesday. Schrock, acquired from the Athletics in the Stephen Piscotty trade, could make his spring debut by the end of the trip.
The Cardinals' considerable crop of young outfielders continues to grab Matheny's attention early in spring. Harrison Bader (center), Tyler O'Neill (left) and Adolis Garcia (right) started Monday, while Oscar Mercado also impressed as a sub.
The speedy Mercado daringly stole third after entering as a pinch-runner in the sixth, then made a running, over-the-shoulder catch in center two innings later.
"We saw Oscar go back on a ball like it was nothing," Matheny said. "Smooth, smooth."
In right, Garcia stayed hot with two hits and an RBI. He also cut down a run with a strong throw home from right field. The 25-year-old Garcia is a dark horse candidate to break camp as the club's fourth outfielder -- the lone open spot on the position player side -- though it could prefer him to play every day in the Minors.
Bader, who is the favorite to win the job, went 0-for-3. He's 2-for-11 with five strikeouts this spring.
Luke Weaver makes his spring debut as the Cardinals continue their Gulf Coast trip with a second game in Fort Myers, this one against the Red Sox at 12:05 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on Gameday Audio and an exclusive Cardinals webcast.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.