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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Michael Wacha

The tall righty experienced something of a career renaissance with the Red Sox in 2022.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

We’re under four weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training and the former element of that pairing is looking as strong as it has in at least the last dozen Yankees seasons. With Carlos Rodón brought in to pair alongside Gerrit Cole, it’s hard to find a better one-two punch at the top of any rotation in baseball. However, that unit will be a man light as the season gets underway.

Frankie Montas is expected to miss the first month of the season due to shoulder inflammation, creating an opening for the final spot in the rotation. Over the past week, we’ve discussed the merits of several options to deputize in that role, including Clarke Schmidt, Domingo Germán, and Michael King. We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least consider another outside hire.

2022 Statistics: 23 games, 127.1 IP, 3.32 ERA (127 ERA+), 4.14 FIP, 3.99 xFIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.5 fWAR

Previous Contract: Signed one-year, $7 million contract with Boston last winter

Wacha experienced something of a miniature career renaissance with the Red Sox in 2022 after languishing in replacement-level hell across the previous three seasons. His 3.32 ERA, 4.14 FIP, and 1.5 fWAR are all top marks since 2018. Placing in the 70th percentile or better in walk rate and hard-hit rate is certainly a recipe for success.

Much of that success owes to Wacha’s changeup, which has maintained a whiff rate in excess of 34 percent in each of the last four seasons. It’s been his calling card since his days in St. Louis and remained elite in 2022, placing eighth on Statcast’s Run Value leaderboard at -9 runs. You wouldn’t expect the pitch to perform so well based on its below-average movement profile; however, it’s the way it interacts with his four-seamer that makes it so effective.

Wacha’s height, long levers, and nearly over-the-top arm slot help him to create a significant downward plane on his fastball, allowing him to establish the pitch at the bottom of the strike zone. He combines this with the ability to repeat his mechanics between both fastball and changeup such that the changeup is thrown from the same release and tunnels with the fastball toward the plate before dropping below the heater at the last second.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the positives end for Wacha. He went from one of the better starters at keeping the ball in the ballpark (86th-percentile HR/9 from 2013-18) to one of the worst (11th-percentile from 2019-22) — no doubt partially caused by leaving the spacious confines of Busch Stadium.

Speaking of his fastball, it’s not a pretty sight, grading out as the sixth-worst four-seamer in baseball in 2019 and 36th-worst in 2022. It’s no wonder that Wacha has gradually decreased its usage over each of the last three seasons. For starters, it’s lost two miles per hour since his best days with the Cardinals.

I also think it suffers from Wacha’s lack of a pitch with significant horizontal movement. He prefers to pitch north-south, and the absence of a counterbalance pitch with sweeping action means the hitter can almost zero in on a vertical slice of the strike zone.

Perhaps there is a route to improving his fastball. He did add almost two inches of rise relative to average after signing for the Rays in 2021 and that remained the case in 2022. He gets an excellent amount of active spin with the pitch, so to me it’s all about consistently throwing the pitch with a spin axis as close to 180 degrees as he can.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Of course, any conversation about Wacha needs to discuss his extensive injury history. The 127.1 innings he threw in 2022 represented his highest total since 2017, and he landed on the IL with similar shoulder inflammation that is costing Montas the start of the season. In fact, Wacha has struggled with that shoulder ever since suffering a scapular stress fracture in 2014, an injury that likely cost the dominant rookie who won 2013 NLCS MVP a career as a mid-rotation staple.

At the end of the day, the Yankees need to ask themselves whether Wacha represents a significant enough upgrade over their internal options to merit the investment. Compared to some combination of Schmidt, Germán and King, it’s hard to say that he does, even after rehabilitating his career with the Red Sox in 2022.

You be tempted by his sterling ERA and 11-2 record, but a quick look under the hood reveals a troubling combination of factors, and I’m not sure the Yankees are looking for a pitcher to fix to temporarily fill in for Montas in the rotation. Add in ownership’s apparent desire to not exceed the “Steve Cohen tax” threshold, Wacha’s rumored $15 million per year ask, plus the more pressing needs elsewhere on the roster and we arrive at a point where Wacha donning pinstripes feels distinctly unlikely if not inadvisable.