Along with Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha joins the Mets as the latest in a long line of post-peak pitchers the team hopes will recapture past effectiveness. The right-hander diverges from many of his peers in one regard, though, which is that he is only 28 years old. So how did he end up with the Mets on a $3 million deal and what’s a fair expectation for the former Cardinal?
Wacha was drafted by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M and made his debut just one year later at 21 years old. The Cardinals were in the middle of their devil-magic era and he was instantly the most promising piece of an almost otherworldly-seeming rotation, picking up a 3.21 ERA, an All-Star nod, and an NLCS MVP award within the his first three seasons.
From the beginning, though, tall and lanky Wacha was the victim of the injury bug, missing significant time in his sophomore season with a shoulder injury. Other shoulder issues and an oblique strain cost him significant time in the following years and all told he made 30 starts just twice in his career, in 2015 and 2017.
Wacha stayed healthy through 2019 but saw a shift in his usage, as the Cardinals tried him out in a relief role after early struggles in the rotation. The experiment wasn’t exactly successful, though, and he put up a 5.66 ERA across five relief appearances. On the surface, he seemed to improve after he returned to the rotation in August, with a 3.95 ERA over the last two months of the season, but his peripherals remained largely unchanged and he finished the year with a FIP almost a full run higher than his 4.75 ERA, while averaging barely four innings per start in that time.
Aside from his rising ERA, Wacha has seen a spike in his walk rate, which has approached four batters per nine innings the past two years, as well as a leap in his home run rate in 2019 that well outpaces the average increase seen by pitchers around the league. His relatively low strikeout rate, 7.4 batters per nine innings, is close to his career average of 7.9 but consistently trending downward and offers him little room for error in negotiating his diminished stuff with a juiced ball.
The Mets have a tall order if they hope to recapture the promise of Wacha’s early years. Once a hard thrower sitting at 95 miles per hour with excellent movement on his fastball, his velocity has declined nearly two miles per hour and the pitch’s effectiveness has gone down with it. His changeup remains a solid pitch for him but if they plan to have him in the rotation, new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner will have to get his cutter or curveball back into shape.
All told, a one year, incentive-laden (as much as an added $7 million to his $3 million base salary) is an expected market price for Wacha as a sixth-started/swing man, but the Mets are notorious for overexposing pitchers in this role to the detriment of the player as well as the team. The assumption going into the season has to be that the Wacha we saw struggle in recent years is his true form, with the burden on him to prove a potential comeback, not just by keeping runs off the board in small samples, but with significant improvements in velocity, control, and durability. Until that happens, the Mets need to remember that they signed the 2019 Wacha and not the 2013 Wacha and utilize him accordingly.