Michael Wacha impressed on Thursday night, throwing just 69 pitches in five hitless innings—though some intrasquad creativity meant he actually faced 19 batters, most of whom were expected starters. He struck out four and walked zero, and the lone baserunner against him reaching on a Dom Smith error at first base.
Following the game, Luis Rojas highlighted the particular effectiveness of Wacha’s changeup, a pitch that has always been one of his more reliable offerings. If he can reestablish the fastball that he struggled with significantly in 2019, that one-two combination could go a long way in helping him look a lot more like the pitcher he was early in his career when he appeared primed to lead a stacked Cardinals rotation for the long term.
It’s a big “if,” but the “if” was what drew the Mets to Wacha in the first place. Coming in on an incentive-laden contract, the 29-year-old has struggled with durability and run prevention for the better part of four years, though glimpses of his former self still emerge at moments, such as Thursday’s gem.
Throughout the offseason and into spring training, Wacha’s role was in question, though he was certainly a front-runner for the last rotation spot. But with Noah Syndergaard sidelined by Tommy John surgery into 2021, his position as a starter is all but guaranteed—and accordingly, so is the need for him to step up and pitch the way he did Thursday and the way he has earlier in his career. If he can harness The Good Stuff, he could easily rank up there with Marcus Stroman as a number two, giving the Mets the kind of rotation depth they hoped for prior to Syndergaard’s injury. And even a solid number three-type performance would offer some much-needed stability for the back-end of a rotation that’s had its ups and downs over the years.
The biggest obstacle to Wacha providing that kind of steadiness is his endurance. Wacha has averaged just 5.5 innings per start in his career and reached 30 starts in a season only twice. 60 games in 66 days is a breakneck pace for the season and opportunities to skip starts and rest pitchers will be few and far between. For a pitcher who has struggled to keep up with the workload of a major league starter, taking the ball every fifth day with no exceptions is a tall order. But with as few as 12 starts in a season, putting out his max effort might end up being sustainable in those conditions.
The Mets are expected to field one of the better lineups in the league, so their ability to get the most out of their pitching could ultimately be what puts them in the playoffs in this strange and brief season. A Michael Wacha who can shut down the opposition would go a long way in that goal.