Michael Wacha
Can the Rays magic touch resurrect Michael Wacha? Tampa signed Wacha to a one year contract in a make or break year to save his career. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

At what point does something become a lost cause? Teams like the Rays given the budgets they have to work with have to take fliers on buy-low candidates in free agency. The problem is, I’m not sure it gets lower than Michael Wacha right now. The Rays have a new project on their hands.

Tampa signed Wacha to a one-year contract worth $3 million. When the Rays hand that contract out, they’re doing so because they believe Wacha can be a functioning member of the starting rotation. Tampa doesn’t just have $3 million to waste on something that may or may not work out. The Rays believe Wacha can be saved.

The word saved isn’t hyperbole. Wacha is in danger of being kicked out of the sport. That’s how bad he is. The former Cardinals and Mets right-hander posted a 6.62 ERA in 2020. Virtually every time Wacha took the mound, bad things happened. I’m not sure an A-ball pitcher could have done worse.

Wacha is far away from that All-Star season in 2015. Clearly, Tampa sees something they can fix to make him return to his dominant form with St. Louis. Oddly enough, some of the metrics point to that being a possibility despite a horrid 2020 season.

In 34 innings, Wacha posted an excellent 37-to-7 K/BB ratio. Wacha’s 9.8 K per 9 rate was also his career-best. Wacha’s swinging strike rate of 11.3% in 2020 was his best mark since his rookie year. The right-handed starter also notched a 34.3% chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone which was by far his best mark ever.

So let’s get this straight… Wacha was limiting walks and making bats miss. It’s just every single time there was contact, the ball flew out of the park. What if there is more to it?

Wacha is an evolving pitcher. With St. Louis, he featured a pretty nasty Curveball. That has since been scrapped and he’s now featuring a third pitch Cutter. Obviously, the results weren’t great considering Wacha gave up an opponent’s OPS of .951. However, Tampa obviously saw things that make them believe the change is a good one moving forward.

Mostly Wacha’s fastball got crushed this past year. Giving up a .400 average with your fastball is far from ideal. I swear that’s not a made-up number. However, there’s optimism that fine-tuning the cutter can change his fortunes. The metrics on his changeup has always been positive.

It sort of got me thinking of Zack Wheeler the prior offseason. Wheeler was snake bitten on his fastball. The data showed that the Mets did an egregious job managing his pitch selection. Wilson Ramos is one of the worst defensive catchers in the sport in more ways than one. The Mets’ entire defense is disastrous which doesn’t help matters.

Of course, there was always an extra gear that Wheeler was capable of pitching towards. In Philadelphia, Wheeler took his game to another level and proved to be one of the best signings of the offseason. I’m not saying Wacha can replicate Wheeler type success. If Tampa can carve out an average starter to eat innings for $3 million, it’s a win.

It’s pitch and catch, not just pitch. The catcher you have behind the plate has a lot to do with your success as a pitcher. Tampa re-signed Mike Zunino this offseason and they didn’t do it because of his .147 batting average. Zunino is a great backstop because he’s capable of framing, managing a game, and knowing what fingers to put down.

On the flip side, Ramos does no favors for his guys. Ramos started all eight of Wacha’s outings in 2020. It’s no surprise that Wacha then struggled. It’s similar to a quarterback getting beat up because of a bad offensive line. A great offensive line (and in this case defensive catcher) can make a guy look much better than he really is. It’s why the Mets gave the money to James McCann.

Michael Wacha is still throwing his fastball 42.5% of the time. Throwing a pitch that hitters crush a .400 average off of close to half the time isn’t very smart. The more the Rays can get Wacha to think of his fastball as a secondary or third pitch rather than his go to weapon, the better he will be. Furthermore, Wacha’s velocity is starting to return to his 2018 form registering a 93.6 MPH clip.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. This is how a team like the Rays survives as a franchise. Charlie Morton walked out the door this offseason signing with the Atlanta Braves. Michael Wacha coming off a terrible year steps into his spot. Can the Rays resurrect Wacha’s career? Obviously, they believe he can be saved.

The good news is they got him in the building in the middle of December instead of February. Wacha can now be worked into their program and can start working on adjustments. Did Erik Neander make a shrewd investment or will he look like an idiot for signing a pitcher coming off a 6.62 ERA? Now that’s the beauty of baseball.

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