New York Mets: 8 Current MLB Pitchers That Zack Wheeler Compares to
For the New York Mets, all sense of optimism rests in the hands of their young pitching prospects like Zack Wheeler. But what kind of potential and future does Wheeler have, and who are his MLB comparisons?
Admittedly, it’s hard to be a New York Mets fan in 2012. Further, it’s even harder to write about this kind of time. Their player that generated the most buzz, Jose Reyes, has left ship and is now playing for the divisional rival, the Miami Marlins. The New York Mets are very young, and have yet to make much of a splash in free agency. In fact, the last time that the Mets did anything relevant at all was when they traded their All-Star center fielder Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants for a top pitching prospect.
That prospect, Zack Wheeler, is slowly marinating in the minor leagues and fans are left to wonder about what his big league potential actually is.
This is a justified question, of course, for a frustrated fan base with nothing but hope in a player that few know very much about.
There are a few things that we need to understand about Zack Wheeler.
The first is that he has a killer strikeout rate, and recorded 70 K’s in 58.2 IP last season. His dominant pitch is his fastball, consistently in the low-to-mid 90s, but can be seen reaching 99 MPH in this video.This can be in part due to a deceptive and impressive curveball, which he can rely on for almost an entire inning , which is now famous for making batters look foolish.
Wheeler may not “look” like a pitcher – he has big feet, broad shoulders, and hasn’t quite grown into his 6’4” body yet as he weighs only 185 pounds and upcoming growth can potentially help him reach better command – he is highly intelligent, offers solid repetition, and had good balance on the mound.
The biggest knocks on Wheeler can be found in his accuracy and his mechanics.
His walk rate was as high as 5.8 BB/9 before his trade to the New York Mets, but since the trade this fell to 4.5 percent in 27 IP.
As for his mechanics, he has developed a timing issue that forces him to put too much stress on his throwing arm. You can see a bit of the issue developing in this video. This could lead to a critical injury for a pitcher, as one might recall with a pitcher like Mark Prior.
But as long as Wheeler can stay healthy, he has fantastic upside as a potential No. 2 potential that could develop into an ace in the next three to four years. He was the sixth overall pick in 2009, and Keith Law has him listed at the 27th overall prospect in baseball. Says baseballprospetnation.com, ““Potential number two with some All Star seasons; if third pitch or control fail to improve, he could still fit in the middle of a rotation.”
For the Mets, an MLB comparison might give us all something to look forward to.
I think this is a worst-case scenario for Wheeler.
Humber started off as a Mets prospect, throwing especially hard (93.0 MPH in ’06) with comparable hype to Wheeler. Eventually, Humber learned to calm his fastball down and rely more on his curveball. This is a path that Wheeler may go down, depending on how hitters respond to his fastball in the majors. Humber's curveball dependency varies from as high as 32.1percent frequency in 2010 to 21.6 percent in 2011, Humber has spent much of his professional career hoping to figure out what his role is and how often to use his pitches, which Wheeler could ideally figure out why he's still in the minor leagues.
In his first professional stint playing rookie ball for the Mets in 2006, Humber's strikeout rate was as high as 15.75 K/9 before eventually settling down to a more realistic career average of 6.34 K/9. This, too, is a fate we might expect from Wheeler depending on his own efficiency.
Last season, however, Humber produced a (9-9) record which was by far his longest and most impressive in the majors to date.
He also lowered his 2010 ERA from 4.15 to a much more workable 3.75 ERA once he worked on his control issue, as his BB/9 dropped from 2.91 to 2.26.
At that point, however, Humber didn’t quite get workable numbers until 2011, when he was 29 years old.
Why Wheeler is Better: Now at 30 years old, Humber is coming off of his statistically most impressive season and is finally developing his talent. We've already seen more growth from Wheeler in his time in the minors, and we'd expect him to develop quicker than Humber has.
Why Wheeler is Worse: Humber didn't face the same severe health concern in delivery that we've seen from Wheeler, which means that Humber could be looking at a much longer career depending on the future of Wheeler's health concerns.
The Verdict: At 6’3” and 209 pounds, Humber is practically a physical clone of Wheeler and could be used a B- version of what we can expect to see from Wheeler once he makes it to the pros.
In terms of size, Cahill is around (or a little bigger than) what Mets fans will see in Wheeler. Cahill is 6’4” and 222 pounds, and has had moderate professional success.
His best season was in 2010, when he went (18-8) with a 2.97 ERA.
2011 was a bit of a regression year, but Cahill relies on an impressive curveball, and like Wheeler, is improving his change-up.
His dominant pitch is his fastball, but at 89.1 MPH on average, it does not have the same acceleration that Wheeler offers.
While his change-up is his next most common pitch, it’s still clear that Cahill’s curveball is a valuable part of his arsenal and that kind of depth is a weapon that Wheeler will hope to develop as he grows into his talent in the MLB.
He throws low in the strike zone, forcing 55.9 percent of his hits into ground balls. Cahill is an efficient workhorse, and is not a bad option out of the staff for the Oakland A's. Cahill might not be a jersey seller, which would be disappointing for the New York Mets, but he wins games and has been relatively effective with his time in Oakland.
Why Wheeler is Better: If Wheeler's fastball is more effective due to his velocity, he will be a much more memorable player in the MLB.
Why Wheeler is Worse: Cahill has more in his arsenal, including a more useful sinker and a more reliable change-up. Wheeler is more of a two-trick pitcher at this point in his career, which gives Cahill the advantage against more batters.
The Verdict: Like Cahill, Wheeler could project as an adequate No. 2 pitcher.
The brief verdict on the 28 year-old Brandon McCarthy: He’s got a great break on his curve ball, and pitches a fastball not quite as empowering as Wheeler's.
At the same time, McCarthy has some of the form issue that Wheeler deals with and makes many worry about the health of his arm after every pitch. While McCarty has been in the Majors since 2005 after his first gig with the White Sox, he hadn’t seen much success until recently.
Last year was his first effort with any recognizable notability, as he racked up nine wins and twenty-five games started in 2011. McCarthy has bounced to three different teams in the MLB, but last season was his best to date.
McCarthy is not elite, but he is a valuable pitcher for the Oakland A’s and continues to produce at a high level. His fastball might not be as sharp as Wheeler’s is (average: 90.9 MPH in 2011), but a steady reliance on his curve ball (17.1 percent) serves as a consistent reminder to the way one might expect Wheeler to pitch in the MLB.
McCarthy is tall and thin, and like Wheeler, uses that as an advantage while he pitches. He is scrawnier and longer than Wheeler is (6’7” and 200 pounds), but still sports a familiar frame to the Mets prospect. Last season, McCarthy was (9-9) and had a 3.32 ERA.
Why Wheeler is Better: Zack Wheeler has a much better fastball than McCarthy, who is only dominant because his curveball is so impressive. Wheeler also has an impressive fastball.
Why McCarthy is Better: Brandon McCarthy has a significant size advantage, which consistently offers him better control on the ball than Wheeler is familiar with.
The Verdict: If Wheeler turns out to be Brandon McCarthy 2.0, New York Mets fans should remember that they got a pretty decent pitcher over the long haul for a two month rental of Carlos Beltran. And that Carlos Beltran struck out with bases loaded in the playoffs to the Cardinals when he was on the New York Mets in 2006, and we never liked him anyway. Just kidding.
The biggest flaw that Adam Foster found in his write up on Wheeler in ProjectProspect.com was a slight flaw in his mechanics.
Foster was very bright on Wheeler, calling him “one of the best pitchers I’ve seen in the California League.” Still, Foster found a notable flaw that could lower Wheeler’s overall big league potential.
Like a certain Jeremy Hellickson, Wheeler doesn’t turn his forearm over until his foot is planted, which lowers momentum in his lower body and makes his throwing arm do more work than it needs to. When his front foot is planted, his forearm is horizontal to the ground. All of the built up energy from the pitch is transferred through his arm, and the unnatural strain often leads to labrum issues.
Other historical examples of pitchers with history of the “Inverted W” include Mark Prior, Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg.
Hellickson is a long time player in the Rays organization, and finally saw a bit of success last season. His 2.95 ERA was among the better records in baseball, but advanced metrics hardly back up his results.
Virtually all projections on FanGraphs.com predict that he will suffer a regression year in the upcoming season, but after many setbacks Helllickson earned the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award last season.
Why Wheeler is Better: Hellickson is a former 4th round pick that didn't make it to the MLB until he was almost 24 years old. Wheeler has a lot more potential than Hellickson, and has better mechanics as man worry about the future of Hellickson's abilities.
Why Hellickson is Better: Hellickson already rocks a Rookie of the Year Award, and was much more effective early in his career than we might expect from Wheeler.
The Verdict: While Hellickson does not project well for long term talent considering his poor mechanics, a Rookie of the Year Award and something to look forward to in the near future rather than the long haul could be kind of cool for the Mets.
If we can call Wheeler a right-handed Romero, Mets fans might actually be more pleased with their trade than they would expect.
Romero is a staff ace in Toronto, and rocked a 2.92 ERA for the Blue Jays last season. For comparison, newly signed Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson (who will earn $10 million in 2012, and $77.5 million over the course of five years) had a 2.94 ERA last season.
Romero is good at keeping the ball on the ground, and his 54.7 percent groundball rate helps solidify him as a much more effective pitcher. Wheeler, too, can keep the ball low in the strike zone and force batters to reach for a pitch close to the plate.
From 2006-2009, Romero spent his time developing in lower division farm system. When he arrived as an MLB player in 2009, however, he saw immediate success and recorded 13 wins in his first season. Since then, Romero has consistently recorded winning records and has notched 42 wins in only three seasons of MLB experience.
While Wheeler continues to develop, fans hope to see the same instant gratification that Romero experienced in the MLB. Romero (6’0” and 210 pounds), however, is a little undersized and stocky compared to Wheeler.
Why Wheeler is Better: Wheeler's size advantage makes him a much more dominating and imposing figure on the mound.
Why Romero is Better: Romero is fantastic at forcing the groundball, and is much more of a numbers pitcher (great at getting wins) than Wheeler is, who has been better at showing you potential than production in his early career.
The Verdict: If Wheeler was the next Ricky Romero, I don't think anyone would complain. Romero was one of the best pitchers in the MLB last season, and even if he flew outside of the mainstream radar, was still incredibly effective.
In Shale Briskin's article on B/R, Wheeler is compared to Davis.
Both young pitchers, Davis is another aspiring pitcher known for throwing lots of curve balls. While neither are projected to be staff aces in the same way that a David Price or a Matt Harvey is on their respective staffs, they are both staples to a pitching staff with lots of upside so long as they can stay healthy.
Davis is a strong example of what Wheeler can become in the coming few seasons in New York. He has a similar size to Wheeler (6’5” and 220 pounds), and has a more similar fastball (91.4 MPH) to Wheeler than any of the other pitchers that we have looked at so far.
Like Wheeler, Davis looks at his curveball (16.3 percent) more often than his change-up (5.3 percent), which makes him a strong candidate as a strikeout pitcher. His advanced metrics back up his slightly inflated ERA, as his 4.67 FIP matches his ERA of 4.45.
Davis is not the most valuable pitcher in his bullpen, but he is important to the staff and could be a good example of what Wheeler is developing into in the MLB.
Why Wheeler is Better: I like Wheeler's fastball more, and I think he is a much better strikeout pitcher than Davis, who only averages 5.89 K/9 in his career.
Why Davis is Better: Davis has the size advantage here, and has also been more impressive with his time in the MLB. In his first seasons in the MLB, Davis recorded 12 wins and 11 wins.
The Verdict: Wheeler could be an effective no. 2 pitcher in a staff, like what Davis is to Price, if Harvey or Mejia turn out to be as good as we hope that they're going to be.
Matt Cain is a slightly bigger version of the ceiling potential of Zack Wheeler.
He’s 6’3” and slightly more built at 230 pounds. While Wheeler probably won’t ever get much bigger than 200 pounds, the large frame of Cain will be reminiscent of Wheeler.
Cain took some time to develop his potential in the MLB, as he was (30-43) and well below .500 in his winning percentage from 2005-2008.
In 2009, however, his walks rate dropped from 3.76 to 3.02 and his record improved from (8-14) to (14-8). Cain has always been an effective strikeout pitcher, with a career average of 7.41 K/9.
He has been forcing more groundballs in recent years, as his rate has improved from slightly every year from when he started in 2005 (29.5 percent) to last year (41.7 percent) when he had one of the better rates in the MLB.
Since 2006, Cain has thrown 190+ innings every season, which is a very good omen for Wheeler’s health given their comparable size. At 28 years old, Cain is entering his peak years as a ball player in the Giants organization.
He has been an extraordinarily effective no. 2 in their rotation behind Lincecum, which could be an excellent future for Wheeler behind someone like Matt Harvey, Jennry Mejia or Jeurys Familia in their own contemporary version of a pseudo-Generation K in New York. The Lincecum-Cain-Bumgarner rotation was effective enough to win the San Francisco Giants a title, so that kind of optimistic thinking would be good for Mets fans heading into the 2012 season.
Cain throws a hard fastball like Wheeler, with a career average of 92.4 MPH that was as high as 93.4 MPH in 2006. He has a go-to curveball, which is always useful for an effective All-Star caliber pitcher, and looked at it 13.2 percent of the time in 2010. The biggest knock on Cain is that, like Wheeler, he relies more on potential and talent than actual production, as his overall wins-loss record is still below .500 on his career now that he has an overall record of (69-73).
Why Wheeler is Better: I think Wheeler should grow into his talent sooner in his career than Cain did, and I don't see him losing as many games as Cain is now known to do.
Why Cain is Better: Cain has a better size advantage, and his mechanics are more sound making him a more impressive pitcher for longevity than a more fragile Wheeler projects as.
The Verdict: I'm politely praying for Wheeler to turn into the Cain of Matt Harvey (or Jennry Mejia's) Tim Lincecum. That would be an amazing situation for the New York Mets.
If Wheeler put on some weight, I think we could be looking at A.J. Burnett 2.0.
Burnett enjoyed the benefits of a very long career, and he pitched consistently from 1999 until today. Burnett never realized his full potential, but with 121 career victories under his belt, it’s hard to say that his career was disappointing.
His size (6’4” and 220 pounds) was always an asset, and his control was an issue that he slowly improved on his throughout his entire career. He had the same killer strikeout pitcher in him that Wheeler hopes to see in the MLB, as his numbers once reflected a 9.39 K/9 ratio over the course of an entire season.
That year, he went 18-10 with the Toronto Blue Jays and pitched 200+ innings. In his best seasons, he was striking out over nine batters a game and in his worst seasons he was walking almost four (including an effort in 2009 that showed him averaging 4.22 BB/9 for the Yankees).
His velocity is also in par in terms of what Mets fans can hope for out of Zack Wheeler, in which Burnett saw his fastball reach as high as a 95.1 MPH average in 2007. Otherwise, his career average sat at 94.1 MPH.
His curveball was an extremely popular strikeout pitch, which one would expect to see in Wheeler, and Burnett relied on the breaking ball as often as 31.0 percent in 2008 (with a career average of 27.8 percent).
Burnett had a knack for keeping balls on the ground, and his 49.2 percent groundball rate was among the best in the MLB last season. If the Mets landed an A.J. Burnett type in Zack Wheeler, they certainly got a bang for their buck.
Why Wheeler is Better: Burnett was hit hard throughout his career, and showed a career ERA of 4.10. In that sense, it would actually be pretty easy for Wheeler to do all of the impressive things that Burnett did (K/9, great velocity, good curve ball, fantastic GB%) without giving up as many runs.
Why Burnett is Better: Burnett has pitched from 1999 until 2011, and had a career strikeout rate of 8.22 K/9. This is a memorable and special career in this generation and players like A.J. Burnett don't come around every year.
The Verdict: So long as Wheeler stays healthy, this is our best comparison. High K/9 and a high BB/9, great velocity, similar arsenal, similar style of play, and similar projected size once Wheeler puts on his weight. I love the idea of the New York Mets working with the next A.J. Burnett.
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