WHEELER: Cardinals Kids Lead The Way On Biggest Stage
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In Game 2 of the World Series last night you saw something amazing. Three young pitchers – Michael Wacha (22), Carlos Martinez (22) and Trevor Rosenthal (23) – held the highest scoring team in baseball to just 2 runs and both of those came on one swing of the bat.
Let’s start with Wacha, the kid just 16 months removed from his last appearance for Texas A&M. He has been the most dominant pitcher in the postseason and aside from the one mistake, a 2-run home by David Ortiz, a deep Boston lineup couldn’t do anything against him.
Anyone who saw him, who got to talk to him, down in Spring Training this year could see he was special. First of all, his stuff is devastating. A mid-to-upper 90’s fastball that comes from above the hitter’s head and finishes in the lower part of the zone is almost impossible to hit. Combine that with a change up that comes out of Wacha’s hand looking exactly like that fastball, with the same arm speed, and you have a 2-pitch combo that will bring even the best hitters to their knees.
But there is more to Wacha than “stuff.” He’s got the intangibles, too. People watching him, perhaps for the first time, during this playoff run have talked about him having “ice water in his veins” but that’s not how I see it.
Wacha isn’t cold, he’s just calm. There is a difference.
He has the nerves of a gunslinger in the Wild West but he’s the kind that doesn’t go looking for trouble, preferring to let trouble to come to him before calmly dispensing justice.
Wacha has the ability to slow the game down, to concentrate entirely on executing his game plan pitch by pitch. That ability is as rare as his fastball-change up is, maybe even more so.
Barring a catastrophic injury, Wacha will be a Cy Young contender for years to come.
Now we move on to Martinez, the young right hander who just turned 22 in September. He pitched the 7th and 8th innings of last night’s game, allowing just one hit and no runs. He went through the most difficult part of the Red Sox highly productive order and came away unscathed.
Like Wacha, Martinez has an electric mid-to-upper 90’s fastball but aside from the velocity there aren’t many similarities. Wacha’s fastball has a severe downward angle where Martinez gets both vertical and lateral movement, and a good deal of that lateral movement too. His fastball runs in on right handers and his slider, which is a plus-plus pitch when he finishes his delivery properly, runs the other direction.
Both pitches are thrown with the same arm speed making it extremely difficult for hitters to get a good look at what’s coming until it’s too late. Martinez has a pretty good change up as well but doesn’t use it much when working out of the bullpen, mostly because he doesn’t need to.
At this point the only time hitters square up the ball against Martinez is when he makes a mistake, which happens when his delivery gets away from him a little bit, but that hasn’t been often and he has the stuff to make up for it at times.
His energy is different than Wacha’s, too. Where Wacha is calm and cool, Martinez is electric. There’s a bounce to his step and a little flare in the finish of his delivery. He is excited to be out there and as a late-inning reliever that works just fine for him, just like the emotion has worked well for injured closer Jason Motte over the years.
Martinez may be a starter over the long haul, maybe even next year, but for now he is a significant weapon in the late innings.
That brings us to Rosenthal, the hardest thrower in the bunch and the guy who has been charged with closing games in the playoffs despite having just 3 regular season saves in his Major League career.
Like Wacha and Martinez, Rosenthal brings the heat. But it’s a different kind of heat. He doesn’t have as much “tilt” as Wacha or as much movement as Martinez but he’s got the ability to pitch at 98-100 MPH and that little bit extra, combined with his secondary pitches, makes him one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to face.
Rosenthal’s fastball ranged from 96 to 101 MPH this season, and that’s bringing it, but his change up is a swing-and-miss pitch just as much as the heater is. That change sits at 87-88 MPH, occasionally touching 90 MPH, and hitters managed a meager .167 average against it (compared to .216 against the fastball).
In terms of personality, Rosenthal is neither Wacha nor Martinez. He’s somewhere between the two. There is a calm about him, sure, but there is also a bit of a “here it is, see if you can hit it” vibe to him when he’s on the mound.
Interestingly, Rosenthal was never really seen as an elite prospect until it was pretty much too late to call him a “prospect.” He was taken in the 21st round of the 2009 draft and in his first three professional seasons posted a 3.88 ERA in 176 1/3 innings of work. That’s not terrible, but consider that was all done at Rookie Ball and Low-A.
It wasn’t until 2012 where Rosenthal, physically healthy and coming off a full season in 2011, blossomed. In Spring Training of 2012 he made quite an impression on the Major Leaguers, particularly Chris Carpenter, more for his work ethic and willingness to learn than his stuff, though the stuff clearly got noticed too.
He took what he learned to Double-A Springfield (skipping High-A altogether) and that’s where he took off. Rosenthal reached the Majors in 2012 and played a key role in the bullpen during a playoff run that end in Game 7 of the NLCS.
After battling for a rotation spot this past Spring down in Jupiter, Rosenthal settled into the bullpen. As the season went along he established himself as one of the top power arms in the National League and when Edward Mujica lost it late in the season, Rosenthal was there to take on the closer’s role and run with it.
Just like Adam Wainwright did in 2006. Just like Jason Motte did in 2011.
Three young pitchers, all with elite fastballs and critical roles on a World Series team, and three young men with incredibly bright futures. Their personalities and pitching styles are different but the results are the same. Lots of swings and misses and lots of zeros posted on the scoreboard.
There may be other story lines that emerge as this series progresses but one this is certain (and we haven’t even talked about Shelby Miller, the rookie who won 15 games during the regular season): the Cardinals have some special young talent that should help ensure it won’t be too long before they’re back in the World Series again.