Lost in the discussion about whether Michael Wacha should be in the starting rotation or bullpen is whether or not he is capable of being successful in the bullpen.
In 2019 with the only organization he's ever known, the Cardinals, Wacha struggled as a starting pitcher and ended up being moved to the bullpen. Unfortunately, he got rocked in the bullpen as well, ending with a 5.68 ERA (6.37 FIP) and a 1.82 WHIP during a sporadic 13 innings.
The way it stands, based on reports and reading between comments often made by Luis Rojas and Brodie Van Wagenen, it seems Wacha will end up most often pitching in long-relief and be the first person called upon when the Mets urgently need a fill-in starting pitcher.
Can Wacha make the transition, though?
Here is what is working for and against him...
The Main Concern: His command and repertoire
Wacha most often uses his four-seam fastball that sits around 92-93 mph, which is down from just a few years ago. It's a quality pitch, but each of the last few seasons it is resulting in fewer swings and misses and being hit harder and more frequently by opposing hitters. He follows the pitch up with a mix of changeups, cutters and a decent curveball, but he still uses his fastball nearly half of his time on the mound.
In addition to a less-effective fastball, Wacha has struggled to consistently pitch outside to right-handed batters, which had been vital to his success at the start of his career.
Instead of keeping the ball away during the past two seasons, all of his pitches have consistently moved more and more toward the center of the strike zone. And, since they're not great enough to fool opposing hitters, he's getting hit around the ballpark. What's worse, he's actually been fairly lucky on balls in play, which suggests the problem has the potential to be much worse if he doesn't make an adjustment to improve his location.
For instance, balls hit in the air against Wacha are increasingly leaving the ballpark, a result that is extra devastating considering as a relief pitcher he will often be entering the game with a close score and runners on base.
To make matters worse, as his fastball has loss effectiveness, so has his curveball, which Wacha is not spinning or commanding like he did at the peak of his career.
Reason for Hope: Past success and the Andrew Miller Phenomenon
Anytime a struggling starting pitcher during the middle of his career is talked about being moved to the bullpen, like Wacha, it's only a matter of time before someone points to Miller as an example of success.
In relief, Wacha will need to use fewer types of pitches because -- in all likelihood, he will never be facing the same batters a third time later in the game. As a result, just like it benefited Miller, Wacha will be able to ditch what isn't working for him and spend more time focusing on building upon what is working...
Given Wacha's age, what has worked for others making a similar transition before him, and what in his arsenal he is commanding best, Wacha may very well be successful if simply throwing fewer fastballs and more changeups, which is a pitch that has not diminished and continues to be an effective option for him.
"One of the advantages to pitching in relief, he may find, is that by spending less time game-planning and needing to work on a variety of pitches and scenarios, he can use that time to focus entirely on his mechanics and one or two pitches," a rival pitching coach told me. "It can be liberating if the Mets can sell it the right way and he buys into it."
In doing so, it makes it more likely Wacha gets back that missing inch off the plate and can pick up the needed two or three miles per hour that left his fastball.
The Difference-maker: How the Mets level with him
The up-in-the-air nature of what is being asked of Wacha, given his experience at this stage of his career, is the opposite of what might work best for a veteran pitcher that has been used to start games.
"We're used to warming up and working in a specific way between starts," former MLB pitcher Ryan Dempster told me when I asked him to speak about his experience as a starting pitcher being unexpectedly moved to the bullpen.
"We're used to setting up for several batters, having to manipulate them over the course of multiple innings so we can go the distance," he continued. "It's more difficult for the older guy to make that shift when our mind and body has been doing it one way for so long."
Dempster retired when he was 36 years old. He, too, faced questions about whether he should move to the bullpen toward the middle and end of his career. In his experience, possibly the most important thing to set Wacha up for success is to tell him his role as soon as possible and stick to it.
"I have a job to do and a salary to earn this season and in future seasons, so knowing what I need to be doing and how to prepare is vital to me doing my job as best as possible," Dempster concluded. "I may not agree with the organization's decision, but I have a responsibility to my teammates and myself and most important my family."
MLB pitcher Jason Vargas went through nearly the exact situation as Wacha a few years ago.
"For me, it actually created motivation," Vargas told me.
Wacha's past success indicates he has the talent, focus and ability to make adjustments.
It's not like he's always struggled in the rotation and this role reversal is a last-ditch effort to salvage his career.
He's pitched well before, he knows he has pitched well before and now it's just a matter of him and coaches getting back what has worked for him.
I believe he can do it.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is a senior writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. His book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime.