Michael Wacha’s peak as a mainstay of the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation was ultimately pretty brief. While never a star, Wacha was a mid-rotation staple for them in the middle part of the decade now past, and for a time seemed to have potential for a modest breakout. However, after two rough seasons in 2018-2019, Wacha’s career was on thin ice until a brief campaign for the New York Mets in 2020 finally showed faint signs of life.
The Tigers need starting pitching and again seem to be eyeing the bargain bins rather ominously. While the now 29-year-old Wacha doesn’t really have that much to offer in terms of upside, he will be cheap. Compared to other starters available in that bottom tier of free agency, he’s a decent play who should be even less expensive than someone like Rick Porcello, while offering some potential for major league average performance.
If that doesn’t get you hyped, well, here we are now Tigers. Entertain us.
Wacha was initially a first round pick by the Cardinals back in the 2012 amateur draft. Selected 19th overall, his selection was most notable for the fact that the Cardinals received that pick as compensation for Albert Pujols declining a qualifying offer to sign with the Los Angeles Angels.
Wacha debuted with an electric 64 2⁄3 innings just a year after he was drafted. He put up a 2.92 FIP and 2.78 ERA with an excellent strikeout rate during the 2013 stretch drive, and fell just one out shy of a no-hitter on September 24th of that year. That offseason, Cardinals fans waxed most hype, hoping they had a young star on their hands. His high-end strikeout rate declined the next season, foreshadowing what was to come, but again he put up results that looked like a developing frontline starting pitcher across 19 starts.
Unfortunately, those strikeout rates never recovered and his ability to suppress home runs faded as the ill-named launch angle era got underway. Wacha always had good control and limited walks successfully, but the lack of a whiff inducing breaking ball and nagging shoulder issues limited his work to just slightly above average in 2015-2016. He did put together his best season in 2017, seeing a brief uptick in strikeouts and producing 3.1 fWAR, but that was ultimately where he topped out. That performance carried over until June of 2018, when he suffered a nasty oblique strain that didn’t respond well to treatment and ultimately cost him the rest of the season. The Cardinals were forced to move him to the bullpen in 2019, and he’s more or less been in the wasteland of replacement level, all-purpose arms since that point.
Michael Wacha 2017-2020
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Finding the upside
Admittedly, at first glance, Michael Wacha appears to be one of the guys who will be waiting around for a very cheap major league deal or an incentive-laden minor league contract well into February or March. He’s basically been replacement level for two years. However, 2021 will be just his age 30 season, and in his brief stint with the Mets in 2020 there are a few hints of development to unpack.
The biggest problem the past two seasons has been quite a disturbing spike in home runs against Wacha. After allowing an average of just under one homer per nine innings from 2015-2018, that number doubled in 2019, and then got even worse in 2020. Obviously there are elements of a short season with only 34 innings thrown that are just noise, but the home run trend has been ongoing for several years.
The major contributing factor appears to be his declining velocity. In 2017, Wacha topped out at 95.1 miles per hour, his peak average velocity over a full season. That velocity, combined with a fairly vertical arm angle and Wacha’s six-foot, six-inch frame, was a real weapon for him at that point in his career. Paired with an excellent changeup with good depth and some run, he was a tough at-bat for anyone despite the lack of a high quality breaking ball. However, in 2018 and 2019, his fastball velocity ticked down to just 93 mph and correspondingly hitters started teeing off on him.
He appeared to get a little bit of the heat back in 2020, averaging 93.6 mph. Half a mile per hour isn’t exactly a huge gain, but teams are consistently placing premiums on free agent pitchers who shown any sign of improving velocity in the season prior. Witness the Atlanta Braves hurrying in mid-November to pay the oft-injured Drew Smyly more than anyone projected him to earn in 2021 on the basis of a big bump in velocity. Considering the effects of the short season, a half mile an hour jump is pretty flimsy to bet on, but it may explain why there is even any real interest in Wacha at all.
One tangible change Wacha made in 2020 was to increase his cutter usage at the expense of his fastball and curveball. With his heater having declined from its peak, simply using that pitch less makes plenty of sense. The cutter wasn’t exactly a real weapon, but as he used his curveball and fourseamer less, it was a seemingly a little harder to recognize what was coming for hitters. In his prime years, Wacha’s best pitch has always been his changeup, and that offering continues to hold up, generating a 40.8 percent whiff rate in 2020 despite actually increasing its usage slightly.
Wacha’s 2020 strikeout rate of 23.7 was his highest since 2013. His swinging strike rate jumped two percent, a substantial bump which backs up the punchouts to a degree. Still, the 2020 sample is just so small that it’s really hard to buy into the strikeouts. At least, it’s a lot harder to buy that trend continuing over the ever worsening home run troubles. His whiff rate with both the changeup and cutter were pretty flat from 2019 to 2020, so there isn’t a ready made explanation for the rise in strikeouts other than the altered pitch mix and diminished fastball usage keeping hitters off balance a little more.
That’s not a lot to bet on, but at least the cost will be minimal.
Should the Tigers bite?
Right now, there isn’t much point pushing hard to sign Wacha unless the Tigers really believe there’s something tangible in his more diversified pitch usage that can sustain the uptick in strikeouts. It’s possible that the fastball, cutter, and changeup play better against each other without the curveball in the mix. Still, he hasn’t found an answer to the home run problems, and while Comerica might keep one or two in the park, it’s not going to make a major difference.
It’s encouraging that his fastball velocity was up a little bit, but would that sustain through a whole season? Is he beyond his shoulder problems and building back up to even better velo? That’s something we can’t answer, and the uptick just doesn’t really compare to someone like Smyly who gained about two miles per hour on average and is now a few years removed from Tommy John surgery.
The Tigers need real help in the rotation in 2021, not just more problems to try and juggle alongside their top prospects. But, as new manager A.J. Hinch has suggested, they would like to add two starting pitchers this offseason. Wacha is a perfectly good choice as the cheaper depth play. He can’t really command more than say $3 million on a one year deal. If someone wants to go much higher they’re welcome to have him in my opinion.
If interested, the Tigers could reach out now and try to secure him as depth and as a fallback plan should they be unable to score a better starter in free agency or trade. They just don’t have any particular reason to go and overpay in order to get it done. Were Wacha amenable to a deal at the low end of the scale, go right ahead. But if he’s determined to try to hold out for more money or a better landing spot, there’s just no reason for the Tigers to spend much time on it unless they really think they see something in his game that warrants the attention. Based on his numbers and metrics over the past two seasons, there really isn’t too much meat on the bone left. He should offer something between replacement level and major league average performance, with a chance for a little more.