2018 Player Profile: Michael Wacha
With spring training getting underway, the 2018 fantasy baseball season is very nearly approaching. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for this year. This week, another starting pitcher who fantasy owners, despite a strong pedigree and above-average MLB results, are curiously undervaluing in drafts to this point. In all likelihood, this is due to a couple of misleadingly high ERA marks in recent seasons.
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Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
2017 statistics: 165 innings pitched, 4.13 ERA, 3.63 FIP
Michael Wacha has quietly settled into the middle of the Cardinals’ starting rotation in recent seasons, eclipsing 135 innings pitched in each of the past three years, including 165.2 innings over 30 starts in 2017. While Wacha does not have a standout skill, he offers a bit of everything, combining slightly above-average strikeout, walk and ground rates. Generally, these peripherals have manifested in above-average run prevention numbers, as well, with his ghastly 5.09 ERA in 2016 the lone exception. That year, however, his FIP was over a run below his ERA, portending positive regression in 2017 which proved prescient, as he posted a solid 4.13 mark last year. More impressive, however, is that Wacha’s improved 2017 was not just a product of regression; he also somewhat improved his underlying metrics, and even further positive regression gives him solid upside for the 2018 season.
Specifically, Wacha’s strikeout numbers ticked up slightly last season, as his 22.5% strikeout rate was the highest of any full season of his major-league career, about two percentage points above the league-average starting pitcher’s. This came alongside a marginal improvement in his ground-ball rate, to a career-high 48%, with no noticeable spike in walks. Nor was there an uptick in the quality of contact which he allowed: the 86.3 MPH average exit velocity off Wacha in 2017 was in line with his previous marks, and that too rated as slightly above-average. In short, 2017 was more of the same (if not better), with Wacha offering a well-rounded collection of skills which, in the aggregate, should make him a solid mid-rotation fantasy option.
Indeed, Wacha has posted FIP totals below 4.00 in every season of his MLB career to this point. That said, he has not actually posted an ERA under 4.00 in two years. The problem? He has had some difficulties pitching with men on base in each of the past two years. In 2016, opposing hitters batted .316 off Wacha with men on, compared to .257 with the bases empty. The gap was not quite as stark in 2017 (.294 versus .245), but there did still remain a substantial divide in Wacha’s performance dependent upon the situation. In this context, Wacha’s underperformance of his context-neutral statistics in recent years makes more sense.
The good news is that, despite this phenomenon having occurred two years in a row, this type of divide in performance tends not to be sustainable. Wacha himself was significantly better with men on base than with the bases empty as recently as 2015, and neither his velocity nor his spin rate changed noticeably based on the situation last year. Wacha has mainly been a victim of poor timing, clustering hits to inflate his run prevention numbers. There is no real reason to continue to expect him to struggle so significantly with men aboard in the future, so he should be expected to post a lower ERA next year than he has in either of the past two.
Wacha’s fantasy stock is also somewhat boosted by factors over which he has no control. Busch Stadium is, on the whole, somewhat pitcher-friendly, which is part of the reason why he has long had so much success preventing home runs. St. Louis should also feature a strong lineup to offer him run support and potentially inflate his win total, with Marcell Ozuna added this offseason to an already interesting offense. Even the Cardinals’ team defense was average to well-above depending on one’s defensive metric of choice, although that may or may not be sustainable. Even if the team’s defense does regress slightly, the park factor and run support give Wacha additional building blocks beyond his above-average true talent level for a strong 2018 fantasy season.
Despite his durability, stuff (he threw the tenth-hardest fastball among qualified starters last season), and age, Wacha is being overlooked in fantasy leagues, currently being selected 68th among starting pitchers. That is, likely, the result of his mediocre 4.56 ERA over the past two years. Because much of that ERA is a reflection of poor sequencing luck, though, he presents a value opportunity for 2018 and beyond. Wacha profiles as a top 30-40 starter for the 2018 season, yet he is currently being selected behind such players as Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, and the injured Ervin Santana. Fantasy owners should jump on that bargain in all future drafts.
2018 Player Profiles