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One Big Question: Can Michael Wacha’s new pitch mix gain continued success in 2022?

He was a completely different pitcher in his final eight starts of ‘21.

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Boston Red Sox Photo Day Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Michael Wacha.

The Question: Can Michael Wacha’s new pitch mix lead to continued success in 2022?

On August 14, Michael Wacha got ripped for 11 hits and seven earned runs in a 12-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins. He still held a spot in the Tampa Bay Rays rotation, a team with an American League-best 71-46 record, but his latest blow-up dropped Wacha to 2-4 with a 5.91 ERA on the season. Changes needed to be made, not only to stay in the rotation but to stay in the league. Wacha was coming off a short 2020 season with the Mets where he pitched to a 6.62 ERA and 1.56 WHIP and probably wouldn’t get too many more opportunities like this.

Three months later, Wacha was agreeing to a guaranteed one-year deal with the Red Sox for $7 million dollars, more than doubling his salary of $3 million in 2021. What could have possibly changed in the meantime? Or was this a wildly reckless pay raise?

A quick search of Wacha’s Baseball Savant page shows a whole lot of blue in the top right, which is not the color you want to see. His barrels allowed, expected ERA, expected batting average, and slugging allowed all hover around the bottom tenth percentile in all of baseball. The only two areas of red in 2021 were chase rate (top eight percent of the league) and walk rate (top 16 percent). The control has been one clear step forward in the last two years, as Wacha only walked 2.2 batters per nine compared to a 3.1 rate per nine innings over the first seven seasons of his career. Unfortunately, when the pitch was in the zone, it was getting smoked far too often.

After the aforementioned mid-August start against the Twins, Wacha changed his pitch mix going forward, above all else by essentially ditching his cutter entirely. He had thrown it 33.3% of the time in his first 21 appearances of the season. In his next start, he only threw the pitch 12% of the time against the White Sox where he struck out nine and allowed three runs in five innings. Realizing he was on to something, Wacha used the pitch sparingly the rest of the season. Including that White Sox start, Wacha only threw the cutter 3.9 percent of the time in his final eight appearances (seven starts), including three starts where he didn’t throw the pitch once, instead opting to increase the usage of his changeup (27.6% before, 33.2% after) and curveball (3.0% before, 14.2% after), per Fangraphs. The differences were night and day for Wacha:

Michael Wacha Splits

 First 21 Appearances Final 8 Appearances
 First 21 Appearances Final 8 Appearances
IP 85 1/3 39 1/3
ERA 5.91 3.20
WHIP 1.50 0.89
BAA .300 .192
K% 20.3 29.2
BB% 6.4 4.5
K-BB% 13.9 24.7
GB% 37.0 46.0
O-Contact% 68.5 59.7
Michael Wacha Splits

In his final two starts of the season, Wacha was so locked in that he only allowed one hit and no runs over ten combined innings at Houston and at the Yankees. It should also be noted that in Wacha’s one postseason appearance in mop-up duty against the Red Sox in Game Two of the ALDS, he allowed nine hits and six runs in 2 23 innings.

In Wacha’s introductory press conference via Zoom, he talked about this change (via Mass Live), “I felt like the cutter just didn’t have the consistency that I wanted it to,” Wacha said Saturday during his introductory Zoom press conference. “So just kind of scrapped that and started mixing in the curveball. And I felt like the curveball was a lot slower than the cutter. It was a big difference from my other pitches. So it felt like it kept hitters more off balance. It ended up being a pitch where people would either take it and steal a strike (from) them or it would be a weak contact. And then it helps that fastball play up.”

Wacha wasn’t kidding about confusing hitters with the slow curveball, which was likely a pitch they hadn’t prepared for. He threw the pitch 124 times, almost always early in counts, and it was only put in play seven times the entire season.

So, can this continue going forward? The changeup has long been Wacha’s most effective pitch so the slight increase in usage would make sense. With an offseason to evaluate the curveball, however, teams will likely prepare for that being in the repertoire. Will Wacha re-introduce the cutter? “Moving forward with that into the offseason, I’m going to continue working on those pitches but also getting that cutter back to where I need it to be where it’s a more consistent pitch against righties and lefties,” Wacha said.

Wacha enters the season in a battle for a rotation spot. With Chris Sale’s extended absence to open the season, he is now vying for one of three open rotation spots. After Alex Cora’s comments on Sunday that Tanner Houck is likely to take one of those spots, he is seemingly battling Rich Hill and Garrett Whitlock for the other two spots to start the season. Wacha gets the ball in Monday’s spring training game against the Braves with an opportunity to deliver the first punch in that battle, which is in a more limited time frame than ever due to the lockout. It will be interesting to see what pitches Wacha features in a key outing to determine his role this season.