Prior to the lockout going into effect, the Boston Red Sox were, much like many other teams around the league, quite busy adding to their roster. Although they didn’t add the quality of starting pitcher that some of us perhaps expected and certainly hoped for, they added a trio of veteran arms to join their rotation. One, James Paxton, will be on the shelf for at least the first half of the season, but both Rich Hill and Michael Wacha are expected to be part of the group from Opening Day. It’s always possible that they could add another name to this group as well, but my guess would be that any addition would also come with a surprising trade shipping out a returning starter, or more likely would just be a minor-league signing for depth.
But even if there isn’t much that the team is going to do after the lockout in terms of adding to the rotation, there are still plenty of questions of how things are going to work with this group. While they were able to outperform expectations last year, it’s hard not to have questions with this rotation as well. For as much talent as their undeniably is, there are questions with all five of the presumed starters. (In addition to Hill and Wacha, that would be Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Nick Pivetta.) Presumed is a key word here, though, because nothing is set in stone. The easy decision would be to put those five veterans in the rotation and go from there, and while that’s my expectation there is a more than fair argument that one or both of Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock should have a legitimate shot at an Opening Day rotation spot, in which case Wacha would likely be the one on the outside looking in.
Now, it’s important to remember that most of these conversations regarding pitchers and who gets in and who’s left off are answered for us just by injuries occurring, and there is probably an even greater chance with this group given the histories and ages of the players involved. Of course, again harkening back to last season, expectations about pitcher health do not always come to fruition. And while things ultimately wound up just fine for the Red Sox, we know there is some danger in situations where health is better than expected that sticking with a veteran pitcher too long can actually be a detriment to the team.
All of that brings us back to Wacha, who signed a one-year deal with Boston worth $7 million not long before the lockout. Once a promising prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals, and in fact part of the 2013 team that lost to Boston in the World Series, injuries and just the general evolution of the game started to work against Wacha and he’s been worse than league-average in both ERA and FIP (after adjusting for park effects) in each of the last three seasons. While he’s pinpointed his control the last two seasons, his strikeout rate is just average and he gives up a ton of home runs, and just hard contact in general. His track record simply is not one that necessarily has to be locked into the rotation to start the season.
In fact, his arsenal is one with which you could make the argument that he is actually a better fit in the bullpen. Granted, the reasons a pitcher may be a better fit in one role than the other is often a more nuanced one than a repertoire, but there’s no doubt that pitchers with a limited repertoire can do better in shorter stints. For Wacha, he has a starter’s arsenal in the sense that he uses three pitches at least a quarter of the time, but one of them probably should be ousted from his repertoire.
I mentioned above that the evolution of the game has not been kind to him, and a lot of that comes down to his fastball. Wacha isn’t a soft-tosser, spending his prime years with his four-seam sitting in the 94-95 mph range on average, but that also is not big-time velocity in today’s game. More importantly, he’s not the kind of pitcher to live up in the zone or above it with the heat. Instead, he often works in the bottom half with the fastball. In today’s era of upper cut swings and launch angle-conscious hitters, that can lead to mistakes. And indeed, his fastball has been crushed. Going back to 2018, the best expected wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) he allowed against the pitch was .397. Best!
That fastball which has led to so much trouble has also been his most-used pitch, which is not exactly a great combination and a good way to be below average on a consistent basis as Wacha has. If he were to move to the bullpen in a long relief, two-ish inning per outing kind of role, he theoretically would be able to ditch that fastball much more often, instead focusing on his changeup, which has been his best pitch his entire career, and then sticking with his cutter, which has had mixed results over his career but has at least been more promising than the fastball. A cutter/changeup combination isn’t exactly a proven one in the bullpen, to be fair, but it clearly would have a better chance of working in shorter stints than in a starter’s role.
And to be clear, none of this is to say that Wacha definitively should not be in the rotation, either, not to mention the fact that when signing he may or may not have been promised a spot in the initial rotation. But even if not, maybe the Red Sox coaching staff and front office has figured out a way to connect with Wacha and get him to throw more up in the zone. It’s worth noting that he has pitched in the bullpen before and the results weren’t the same, but it seems he was still leaning on his fastball in those situations. And it’s not as though Houck and Whitlock come without questions, as both of them may be better suited for the bullpen as well.
Ultimately, my point is simply that, with the way things stand now, that final rotation spot should be up for grabs. Eovaldi and Sale are obviously starting. Hill presumably didn’t sign to be a reliever, and Pivetta did enough last season to earn a back-end job for 2022 as well. But for the fifth spot, the Red Sox would be wise with nothing set in stone, allowing for a real competition in camp. Let Houck show he’s made strides with his splitter. Let Whitlock show that he can hold up as he gets up above 75 pitches. Hell, let Wacha show he’s added a new wrinkle to his fastball such that he can pitch to average levels. The easy decision is to give the top jobs to the veterans on the roster, but it’s not always the right move.