Today, the Red Sox signed right-handed starting pitcher Michael Wacha to a one-year contract. The money isn’t known yet, but it is estimated in the range of $3-$5 million. Wacha is 30-years old and coming off a season where he posted a 5.05 ERA. His peripherals were decent, posting a 4.00 SIERA and 3.91 xFIP, but he still hasn’t had a season with an ERA+ over 90 since 2018. Despite this, Wacha is a low-risk, high upside signing that provides the Red Sox with necessary starting pitching depth.
Back End Starter
In the first couple weeks of free agency, the Red Sox lost Eduardo Rodriguez to the Tigers and declined the options of Martin Perez and Garrett Richards, which left them with a starting rotation of Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, and potentially Tanner Houck or Garrett Whitlock. Sale is coming off Tommy John Surgery and Houck or Whitlock have never thrown a full major league season. This made it imperative for them to sign some rotation depth this offseason, and at the very minimum, Wacha fits that role.
Unlike the signings of Garrett Richards and Martin Perez last year, Wacha will not be expected to perform a #3 or #4 starter role. He will likely be a #5 starter or a long reliever coming out of the bullpen ready to step into the rotation for any potential injuries. The signing of Wacha also does not mean the Red Sox will not pursue more free-agent starting pitching, especially with the concerns surrounding Sale’s arm.
At face value, the Wacha signing seems insignificant and comparable to the signing of Martin Perez last year. But unlike Perez, Wacha has a lot of potential for 2022, as evidenced by the changes he made during the season in 2021. His cutter, used at a 33% rate from April until August, got crushed. Batters slugged .586 off of Wacha’s cutter and had a .418 wOBA, and Wacha lost an estimated 2.10 runs per 100 cutters he threw according to Fangraphs. But Wacha ditched the cutter in August, and immediately had more success, posting a 2.88 ERA from 8/28 on.
With that said, his end-of-year success was only a sample size of 34.1 innings, and he was extremely lucky on his fastball, which he greatly increased in usage to compensate for no longer using his cutter. As a result, he is still projected for a 4.43 ERA in 2022 by Steamer.
Even if his success with his new pitch mix is unsustainable, Wacha provides the Red Sox with a skill they desperately need: strike-throwing. Wacha was in the 84th percentile of all pitchers in walk rate, giving the free pass to only 5.9% of batters. In comparison, the Red Sox bullpen posted a 10.8% walk rate, good for sixth-highest in the MLB. In 2021, the Red Sox lost too many games down the stretch run of the season because their bullpen was unable to throw strikes and gave away free runs. Wacha should do a good job protecting large leads by not giving away free baserunners and hopefully prevent their top relievers from being overused like they were in 2021.
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