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Michael Wacha looks to get back on track in 2020

The Mets signed Wacha to a low-base contract over the offseason.

New York Mets v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Drafted in the first round by the Cardinals back in 2012, Michael Wacha did not take long to make it to the big leagues—and made a name for himself quickly at baseball’s highest level. Since his debut in 2013, durability has been his biggest issue, though his performance has varied over the past few years and hasn’t matched what he did in his first three years in the bigs. And although it feels like he’s been around forever, Wacha is still just 28 and will turn 29 on July 1.

In his first three years with the Cardinals, Wacha put together a 3.21 ERA, though he did so over the course of just 353.0 innings, 181.1 of which came in 2015—still his career-high workload in a single season. Since 2016, though, he has a 4.39 ERA in 514.2 innings of work. Over that span, he’s gone under four in ERA just once: in 2018, a season that saw him throw just 84.1 innings, albeit with an early-career-like 3.20 ERA.

That the Mets were able to sign Wacha to a one-year contract that guarantees just $3 million—with incentives that can take it up to $10 million—is largely the result of his struggles in the 2019 season. In 126.2 innings, he had a 4.76 ERA, the second-worst single season mark of his career, and a 5.61 FIP that was by far his worst ever. Like many other pitchers, he saw his home run rate spike, but his rate nearly doubled. Having given up 0.9 home runs per nine innings, give or take a few hundredths, for several years running, he surrendered 1.85 per nine last year.

How Wacha fits into the Mets’ pitching staff is one of the relatively few roster questions the Mets have as they work their way through spring training. In the event that all of the team’s starting pitchers—Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello, and Wacha—are healthy, someone figures to be the odd man out.

While Wacha has said clearly that he expects to start, he has some bullpen experience and figures to be in the mix for that role change. In theory, a combination of Wacha and Matz should be able to get the Mets to at least 32-ish starts combined, however things play out, as both pitchers have struggled to get close to 200 innings in a season in their careers.

In terms of stuff, Wacha’s fastball still sat in the mid-90s last year, though at 93.37, it was a bit slower than his usual 94-to-95 average from years past, per Brooks Baseball. And in addition to the four-seam fastball, Brooks has had him throwing a sinker, changeup, curve, and cutter for the past two years—with the sinker the only pitch that wasn’t classified as such before the 2018 season. Wacha throws the four-seam fastball the most, by far, though he had decreased his usage of it every year in the big leagues—and drastically in 2018—before it increased close to 2017 levels last season.

From there, it’s cutter, change, curve, all of which he throws at least a double-digit percent of the time, while the sinker is a rarely-used pitch. That mix has more or less remained intact throughout his major league career, with some of the lower-use pitches occasionally swapping spots in the pecking order. And while he is not a particularly high-strikeout pitcher, Wacha’s best swing-and-miss pitch is unquestionably his changeup, which has generated his highest whiff rate of any pitch—and got swings-and-misses 22 percent of the time he threw the pitch last year.

Between health and performance, it’s understandable that the projections don’t love Wacha going into the 2020 season, but they also don’t think he’ll be terrible, either. What his role is, how healthy he is, and whether or not he’s able to harness what he’s throwing at this stage will determine just how much he helps the Mets this year. You wouldn’t bet on him to lead the team in innings pitched or ERA, but when he’s on the mound, he should at least be capable. The Mets could use more pitchers about whom you can say that, but as a fifth or sixth option in the rotation, it’s better to have him as an option than not.