Michael Wacha is already familiar with what Fenway Park can be. As a Cardinals rookie in 2013, he pitched in Games 2 and 6 of the World Series against the Red Sox in Boston. In 2021, as a member of the Rays, he again played the part of a postseason visitor to Fenway in the ALDS.
Both times, he was part of beaten teams. Yet despite the disappointment of defeat, Wacha gained an appetite for what it might be like to pitch in Boston.
“Some of the most electric atmospheres I’ve ever pitched in [were] at Fenway Park,” said Wacha. “The 2013 World Series, it was bananas out there. It was 30,000-40,000 guys that are just screaming at the top of their lungs and creating that atmosphere that you love playing in. And then this past playoffs, this past season, was another crazy atmosphere.
“It’s always been fun going to Fenway Park and playing against them some, but I think it’s gonna be a lot more fun whenever they’re cheering you on and they’re on my side.”
Wacha will have that opportunity in 2022. He was introduced on Saturday after the Red Sox announced his one-year, $7 million deal, a contract that will secure more than he earned on back-to-back one-year, $3 million deals with the Mets (2020) and Rays (2021).
The Sox are basing Wacha’s salary not on the surface-level numbers of what he did — in 124⅔ innings with the Rays last season, the 30-year-old went 3-5 with a 5.05 ERA, 82nd among 96 pitchers who threw at least 120 innings — but what they think he can do. The righthander featured a roughly league-average strikeout rate (22.9 percent) and a 5.9 percent walk rate, the latter well below the 7.8 percent league average for starters.
Moreover, there was reason for encouragement in his season-ending performance, when he ditched a cutter that had been hit hard all season in favor of a primary four-seam fastball and changeup mix that also featured a bump in his curveball and sinker.
“The curveball was a lot slower than the cutter. It felt like it kept hitters more off balance. Toward the end of the year I ended up throwing that more, mixing that in more, and started to have some more success,” said Wacha. “[Manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dave Bush] did express how they liked my willingness to adapt and to change and my competitiveness to make adjustments out there in the middle of the season and not just keep rolling with things that aren’t working.”
In his last seven games and 34⅓ innings, Wacha had a 2.88 ERA with 34 strikeouts and seven walks. He concluded the season with impressive five-inning outings against the Astros (no hits, no runs, six strikeouts) and Yankees (one hit, no runs, two strikeouts).
“Last year, [I] just had some ups and downs. But toward the end of the season I felt like the ball was coming out [well] … [and] just feeling good,” said Wacha. “My approach on the mound was where I needed to be to move forward. I’m very confident in myself and my work ethic and my competitiveness to go out there, compete, and get the job done. I’m looking forward to getting back to that role where I’m out there dominant and getting some good wins for this club.”
Wacha is slated to join a rotation that features Nate Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Nick Pivetta. His one-year deal represents a starting point for the Sox, but not an impediment to any other signings. The team intended to add starting pitching depth, and will continue to explore ways of doing so by both trade and free agency.
If the team doesn’t like other starting options, it can let Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock compete for a fifth starter spot while directing more of its money into other areas (bullpen, middle infield, bench).
Wacha’s performance in the last three seasons — 10-16, 5.11 ERA — makes clear that he comes without guarantees. In a best-case scenario, Wacha could build off his season-ending performance and emerge as a mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter. At the least, so long as he’s healthy, he can help the team manage the workloads of Houck and/or Whitlock, while buying time for the development of upper levels starting candidates such as Josh Winckowski, Kutter Crawford, and Connor Seabold.
Based on how he felt at the end of last year, in his words healthier than at any point since mid-2018, Wacha believes he can be more than a placeholder.
“I feel like a new man out there,” said Wacha. “I felt really good this past year, and so looking forward to keep moving forward with it.”