Wacha's tinkering with slider reaping early rewards

May 12th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ANAHEIM -- is a 12-year Major League veteran who has pitched in 257 games for six teams, but, like many pitchers, he’s always trying to tinker with his pitches and find improvements when needed.

Wacha has never thrown a slider before, but he’s always been interested in adding one to his repertoire, working on it in the offseason and during in-season bullpen sessions. Recently, he’s found a grip that he feels comfortable with and movement that he’s been looking for, enough that he decided to debut a few to right-handed batters in his start against the Angels on Thursday.

“As soon as you get content with what you’ve got, things can go south pretty quick,” Wacha said. “I’m always trying to mess with different grips, different pitches, and always trying to work on something to create that better repertoire.”

On Statcast, sliders all registered as Wacha’s cutter, but it had a different break and, at times, was slower than his actual cutter. He didn’t throw many sliders, but most of them came down and away against righties -- like when Angels shortstop Zach Neto swung through one in the bottom of the fifth inning or when whiffed on one in the seventh.

“Getting that working down and away to righties, I feel like it’s a spot I hadn’t really used against righties,” Wacha said. “Being able to land those for strikes down and away and expanding whenever I need to, I think it’s going to be a big plus for me.”

Using that pitch along with better sequencing allowed Wacha to turn in one of his best starts of the year, despite the ending inflating his line more than it should. He cruised through six scoreless innings against the Angels with six strikeouts, but then he faced five batters in the seventh without recording an out. Three runs ended up scoring, but Wacha, who entered Thursday with a 5.50 ERA, had a lot of positives to take from the outing.

He allowed just two hits compared to eight or more hits in four of his previous five starts. And on Thursday, his velocity was up across the board, including 1 mph up on his fastball.

“I think he also thought he had something to prove to have a good outing,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “It hadn’t gone his way the last couple of times. He takes a lot of pride in what he’s doing, and he wanted to set the tone a little bit.”

Wacha has tinkered with this slider since Spring Training at the encouragement of the Royals’ pitching coaches to find something with depth that moved away. Before, he relied on manipulating his cutter to do that, and it yielded mixed results.

Wacha was open to the addition, but finding a grip with the right movement and feel was tough at first. Until this past week, a lot of them were slipping out of his hand or “felt funny,” he said. He also wanted to be able to land it for strikes.

“It’s trial and error at the end of the day. And it’s not only the grip, but it’s the cue and the feel and the trust,” Royals assistant pitching coach Zach Bove said. “Ton of credit to him for being open and willing to try and experiment. It’s been cool to see his progression on that pitch.”

Wacha feels like Thursday’s start was something to build on, especially with the potential of adding the slider into his repertoire.

“It feels like another weapon I can go out there and use,” Wacha said. “It’ll probably be on scouting reports now, but I imagine it wasn’t on theirs leading into that game. Just another something to protect that changeup … something that’s darting to the other side of the plate. I feel like it can be really useful.”