Was new Padres pitcher Michael Wacha lucky or good in 2022?

Sep 27, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Michael Wacha (52) throws a pitch during the second inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

New San Diego Padres pitcher Michael Wacha experienced success in Boston last season. Was it luck, or did he actually find something lasting?

The Padres desperately needed some starting pitching depth ahead of the 2023 season. A few days after pitchers and catchers reported to camps around the league, the Friars signed 2015 All-Star Michael Wacha.

Between 2019 and 2021, with the Cardinals, Mets, and Rays, Wacha was less than effective. In fact, at times, he was downright awful. Over 66 appearances covering those three seasons, he owned a 5.11 ERA and measly 81 ERA+. In 29 games in 2021, he posted an ERA north of 5.00.

However, he appeared to find some success in Boston in 2022, calling back memories of his best years during the mid-2010s in St. Louis. In 23 starts, he went 11-2, with a 3.32 ERA and 127 ERA+, which was the second-best mark of his career.

Was he lucky or good? How much of that success can be repeated with the Padres this season?

The first question is, did Fenway Park help in any way? He posted a 2.59 ERA in 10 starts at home in Boston. The thing is, according to Baseball Savant, Fenway Park was the third-most hitter-friendly park last season. In that case, Wacha performed better than expected.

Did he benefit from above-average defense from the Red Sox? Boston ranked 22nd as a team in Outs Above Average, and 23rd in Defensive Runs Saved. On the infield, Rafael Devers had -2 Outs Above Average at third base. First baseman Bobby Dalbec also had a negative OAA at -1. However, Trevor Story ranked third among all middle infielders with 10 OAA. New Padres star Xander Bogaerts put together a strong 5-OAA season at shortstop.

Overall the defense was a mixed bag behind Wacha. Certainly not good enough to boost Wacha’s numbers to near All-Star levels.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is another good indicator of luck. It “is similar to ERA, but it focuses solely on the events a pitcher has the most control over — strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs. It entirely removes results on balls hit into the field of play.”

Compared to his 3.32 ERA, he posted a 4.14 FIP. That suggests some slight good luck since his ERA is significantly lower than his FIP. Another thing to consider is he has a career 4.07 FIP, which is almost identical to the FIP he had last season.

There is one concerning area. In 2022, his expected batting average allowed, expected slugging allowed, and barrel rate allowed are all worse than the 28th percentile. His whiff rate is in the 12th percentile, and fastball spin rate is in the 16th.

If those numbers continue, he is bound to regress. However, the Padres were third in OAA last year and seemed to only get better on defense this offseason. It’s not hard to imagine the Padres having one of the best defenses in the league.

The biggest difference between his poor 2021 and strong 2022 were his FIP falling over 30 points, and his hard contact rate allowed going from the 18th percentile in 2021 to 70th percentile last season.

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Another encouraging sign is his usage of the sinker. In 2021, he threw just 70 sinkers with a .444 slugging percentage against it. Last season, he bumped it up to 245 sinkers, with a meager .263 slugging percentage against.

Overall, yes, in some areas, he benefitted from some good luck. However, his hard contact rate plummeted between 2021 and 2022, and he will benefit from a strong defense in San Diego. Plus, if he further hones in his sinker, there is reason to hope his numbers are somewhere closer to his stellar 2022 campaign than his poor few seasons prior.

He appears to be a solid back-of-the-rotation option for the Padres.

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