What the KC Royals should expect from Michael Wacha this year

One of Kansas City's new pitchers can do well.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our 2024 KC Royals player projection series. Over the next few weeks, we'll be reviewing how various Royals performed last year and predicting how they might fare this season. Up today is pitcher Michael Wacha.

Michael Wacha was among the first additions to the KC Royals during their busy offseason. For a team desperate for quality pitching, Wacha will have an opportunity to convert fans into believers during what will surely be a fascinating 2024 season. What should they expect from Wacha's first year in Kansas City?

Will Michael Wacha bring consistency or upside to the Royals?

Wacha's recent results have been some of the best of his career with a 3.27 ERA over the past two seasons. He doesn't strike out many batters as he reached eight or more strikeouts in only three of his 24 starts in 2023. Instead, he relies on flyballs to get outs with his creative mix-and-match pitch arsenal.

As well as Wacha performed the past two years, his 3.27 ERA is a serious disparity from the 4.01 FIP over the same period. He continued to impress with his finesse-over-power approach; he doesn't profile as the type of ace who dominates hitters with pure velocity, so his most valuable outcome will be grounded in stifling hitters as he has in recent seasons.

FanGraphs' projection for Michael Wacha in 2024

FanGraphs (Depth Charts version) predicts Wacha will go 8-10 with a 4.59 ERA, strike out 124 and walk 46 in 151 innings, give up 23 home runs, and allow a 39.2% groundball rate.

How will Michael Wacha actually perform this season?

FanGraphs' most eye-catching projection is the 4.59 ERA, which would represent a serious regression from his 3.22 ERA just a year ago. This is a sharp correction toward his expected numbers, but is it warranted? His proven results suggest he can continue to limit opposing hitters with this style. While Wacha could certainly still put up numbers similar to his 2023 season, it's understandable to be hesitant. His lack of velocity and flyball-prone style could lead to some laborious outings.

Per FanGraphs, Wacha posted one of his best HR/FB ratios last season, but had the highest FB% of his career. While giving up too many flyballs could lead to more damage, it is precisely because Wacha has limited hitters' ability to square up the ball that he has done so well. Much of his performance this year will be reliant on his ability to continue pressuring hitters with unpredictable pitch sequencing. Without fantastic strikeout numbers, there will be plenty of balls in play that his fielders will need to wrangle to keep the bases clean.

Wacha threw his changeup more than any other pitch last year while mixing in a four-seamer, sinker, and cutter. If that wasn't enough to keep hitters off balance, his fifth pitch was a curveball. This pitch mix is the primary reason Wacha should continue to succeed: because he doesn't have the strikeout potential of other star pitchers, his ability to tune his approach to the matchup is an entertaining and efficient way to attack hitters.

While that suggests how Wacha might outperform FanGraphs' projections, there are some notable reasons to expect regression. Wacha's extreme flyball rate could lead to more extra-base hits and home runs considering the Royals' defensively-average outfield.

Wacha was much less efficient in the second half of 2023, as well. In his first 14 starts, he had a 2.90 ERA over 80.2 innings while In his final 10 games, his ERA rose to 3.69 over 53.2 innings. He also struggled to maintain his form in his final eight starts in 2022, allowing a 5.28 ERA compared to a 2.28 over his first 15. Will the Royals have a plan in place to help improve his consistency?

There's a certain appeal to Wacha's offspeed-twirling, batter-befuddling approach. FanGraphs expects Wacha to allow significantly more home runs and to not be quite as lucky on balls in play. If he beats projections and pitches as he did in 2022 and 2023, Wacha will be a keystone in a rotation striving to be the best in the division. When at his best, he can attack all types of hitters and keep them from finding their rhythm.

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