Michael Wacha is proving a lot of people wrong this season. I am definitely one of those people. In early May, I wrote about Wacha’s surprisingly strong first few starts with the Red Sox and how the underlying metrics pointed toward an eventual swift reversal of fortunes for the veteran right-hander. While my logic made sense at the time, it’s been more than a month since that piece published and Wacha has kept on dominating, proving me wrong right in my stupid face start in and start out.
He made me look especially foolish this past Monday when he tossed a complete game shutout against the Los Angeles Angels, silencing the bats of offensive superheroes Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout in the process. It marked the eighth time in his nine starts in 2022 that Wacha has allowed two or fewer earned runs and reduced his ERA to 1.99, which ranks among the top 10 marks in baseball among starters with at least 40 innings pitched this season. That’s right. Your boy is sporting a sub 2.00 ERA and it can no longer be laid the feet of a few surprising April starts. We are firmly in June and with nearly 60 games played, the Red Sox are past the first third of the 162-game season. Wacha himself is nearly at the 50-inning mark. Considering starters are more often sitting in the 160- to 180-inning range when they record fully healthy seasons, and that Wacha has already been banged up a little this year injury-wise, those 50 innings likely represent a rather significant percentage of his workload for this year. After all, he hasn’t even reached 130 innings pitched since 2017 when he was still with the St. Louis Cardinals.
So, with a more meaningful sample to go off compared with what we had in early May, it’s time (maybe even past time) to take Wacha seriously as the stellar starting pitcher he’s been this season. In addition, after Monday’s outing, it also time to put to bed the argument that he can’t go deep into games, as he not only pitched nine innings but did so under trying circumstances against the Angels, keeping an opponent completely silent to protect a 1-0 lead, meaning just about every pitch he threw was pressure-packed and held the potential to make the difference between a win and a loss.
Despite acknowledging that Wacha’s performance isn’t just a fluke, determining just how he’s been able to be so successful is still a puzzle, albeit a potentially simple one to solve. It’s not a drastic uptick in velocity, with Wacha averaging roughly 93.5 miles per hour on his fastball, a mark actually below his career average. It’s also not incredible stuff or movement, as his spin rates are much closer to the bottom of the league than the top, while most of his pitches don’t have particularly elite movement compared with the rest of the league. It’s not elite strikeout stuff either, as Wacha is currently sporting a career-low 17.4 percent strikeout rate. Even in his domination of the Angels, he still only had six punchouts in nine innings. It’s not even impressive strike throwing, with Wacha’s walk rate near the middle of the pack in MLB.
No, it’s none of those things I just mentioned. What Wacha is doing is making sure every batter he faces fails to square up pitches and it’s paying off. Like I said, a pretty simple solution. A quick glance at Wacha’s Baseball Savant page mostly yields a lot of blues, meaning many of his rates are below league average. However, he has two sparks of red that really stick out. First, his hard hit rate is currently in the 85th percentile, while his barrel rate is in the 73rd percentile. These may not be the absolute pinnacle in the league, but they are certainly strong results, which look even better in comparison to the rest of his numbers.
By avoiding the sweet spot of opponent’s bats as often as he has, Wacha has kept himself from being a victim to many home runs. He is allowing only 0.72 dingers per nine innings and only 7.4 percent of the fly balls he’s allowed have gone over the fence. In total, opposing hitters have gone yard off Wacha four times and that small number isn’t just luck. In fact, Baseball Savant calculates Wacha’s expected home run allowed total to be a nearly identical 4.6. There are very few deep fly balls that would have been home runs elsewhere to find here.
In addition to keeping the ball in the park, Wacha’s ability to induce weaker contact has helped him create a low batting average on balls in play (.188) and a high strand rate (83.8 percent). Neither of those marks seems particularly sustainable, especially the BABIP, but we already went over how Wacha is brushing off the metrics that point to regression.
Wacha’s consistent performance would be nice all by itself, but it is also paring exceptionally well with Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta’s recent run of success and giving the Red Sox a legitimately excellent top three of the rotation — and that’s not even talking into account Garrett Whitlock’s potential. With Eovaldi, Pivetta and Wacha at the helm, the Red Sox have had the seventh-best rotation in baseball since the beginning of May based on fWAR. Interestingly enough, Wacha is still probably considered the third starter of those three, but while Eovaldi and Pivetta have both had their issues this season, aside from one tough outing against the White Sox on May 26, Wacha has been nothing but solid. Maybe the long months of the summer will eventually reverse that trend and the bill for his less than stellar underlying metrics will come due, but at this point, it’s getting hard and harder to expect it.
All statistics in this article are from before games on June 8.