Michael Wacha’s time with the Mets didn’t go at all as the team had hoped when signing him to a one-year, $3MM deal last winter, but ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that despite a season of lackluster results, Wacha is “among the most popular” free-agent starters on the market at the moment. The vast majority of clubs in the league are looking to cut back costs, and Wacha’s track record with the Cardinals, age and likely one-year price point all seemingly work in his favor.
The 29-year-old righty appeared in eight games (seven starts) for the Mets in 2020 and was rocked for a 6.52 ERA with an alarming nine long balls served up in that time. That marked a second straight rough season for Wacha, who logged a 4.76 ERA in 2019 and finished out that season with shoulder troubles — a problem that he’d also battled in the past.
Many will look at a pitcher with a 5.15 ERA over his past two seasons/160 frames and wonder why he’d generate interest, although today’s front offices place dwindling levels of stock in the game’s conventional and more rudimentary means of evaluating performance. Olney notes that an uptick in velocity has contributed to the interest. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who also suggests interest in Wacha is strong, writes that increased usage of his cutter has piqued the interest of teams around the league (15.5 percent in 2019; 27.1 percent in 2020, per Statcast).
Those seemingly encouraging trends should be accompanied by some caveats, though. Wacha’s velocity jump wasn’t particularly substantial, as he averaged 93 mph on his four-seamer in 2019, per Statcast, and 93.6 mph in 2020. That 93.6 mph mark still falls well shy of the 95.1 mph Wacha averaged in 2017 (his peak velocity season) and the 94.8 mph he averaged in 2015 (arguably the best season of his career). His increased cutter usage came at the expense of a curveball which was a woefully ineffective pitch for him in 2019. However, the cutter was still hit hard by opponents and the curveball was a very effective offering as recently as 2017 (and to a lesser extent in 2018).
None of that is to say that there’s no reason to expect improvement from Wacha moving forward. Last year’s 19.2 K-BB% was the best of his career, and Wacha has never induced swinging-strikes and generated chases outside the strike zone at a higher rate than in 2020. He gave up too much hard contact in the air — hence the nine homers — but the right-hander was among the game’s best at inducing weak contact on the ground (81.9 mph average exit velocity).
Properly evaluating a pitcher is always a tall order — and that’s particularly true when looking at an eight-game sample from a pandemic-shortened season. Wacha won’t turn 30 until next July. That, paired with some of the trend lines he demonstrated in 2020, could land him a decent guarantee from a club seeking a bargain rotation play with some upside. If all goes well for him in ’21, Wacha could hit the market again as a 30-year-old free agent in a much better position than he currently finds himself.