The last time the New York Mets unveiled a prized pitching prospect, Matt Harvey happened. He struck out 11 in his major league debut, and he has yet to cease devouring hitters.
Thus is Zack Wheeler tasked with following the ultimate hard act to follow. But whatever you do, don't underestimate Wheeler's ability to do just that.
Still in the dark about why Wheeler is as hyped as he is?
Don't worry. Myself and B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum have you covered. Mr. Rosenbaum provided me with an in-depth scouting report for Wheeler, and I took care of the rest.
The following is everything you need to know about the (potentially) great Zack Wheeler.
The Physical Goods: Wheeler's Body, Mechanics and Delivery
When it comes to pitching prospects, scouts and executives prefer taller guys who have enough girth to handle the rigors of pitching in the big leagues. If they can't get those, they like tall guys who might add some girth down the line.
According to Rosenbaum, that's Wheeler: "At 6’4” and 185 pounds, Wheeler has a projectable frame thanks to a combination of present strength and athleticism."
Right now, Wheeler resembles Clayton Mortensen of the Boston Red Sox, who is also listed 6'4" and 185 pounds. But if he puts on a few pounds—and it's safe to assume he will—he could become more like Stephen Strasburg. The Washington Nationals ace is listed at 6'4" and an even 200 pounds.
As for Wheeler's throwing mechanics, here's the Rosenbaum report:
In terms of his mechanics, Wheeler is explosive toward the plate with a free-and-easy delivery, and he does an excellent job of staying closed with his front side relative to his foot strike.
Additionally, the angle of Wheeler’s shoulders after breaking his hands allows him to work on a consistent, downhill plane, and more importantly, makes him naturally deceptive and difficult to time.
Wheeler deserves some credit for the fact that his mechanics are drawing positive reviews now, because that wasn't always the case. Mike Newman of FanGraphs pointed out in February that Wheeler has gotten a couple things straightened out:
The pause in his leg kick seen in 2010 is gone. A bit of 'whippy' arm action in the back of his delivery is now smooth and easy. Wheeler’s finish carries his momentum through the pitch where he had a tendency to recoil just three seasons ago.
There's a GIF of Wheeler's delivery embedded in Newman's article. I can't re-post that here, but I do have a GIF of images pulled from Wheeler's spring training debut that shows the key parts of his delivery:
You can see here what Rosenbaum means when he says that Wheeler does an excellent job of staying closed. He doesn't open up to the hitter until the ball is on its way out of his hand, and his height, long stride and downhill plane allow him to get right on top of the hitter.
Hence his deceptiveness, which would make Wheeler a tough customer even if he had mediocre stuff.
Fortunately for him, he doesn't.
The Moneymakers: Wheeler's Arsenal of Pitches
Wheeler's a top pitching prospect, so he must throw really hard with one nasty secondary pitch and a deep repertoire, right?
Pretty much, yeah.
Here's the Rosenbaum report on Wheeler's hard stuff:
Wheeler boasts a plus fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90s and will scrape 98 on occasion. Due to his smooth, fluid arm action and explosive delivery, the pitch tends to jump on opposing hitters—especially right-handed hitters. Wheeler also utilizes a two-seam fastball that comes in a few ticks softer than the four-seam and features late arm-side run.
I can't embed the video here, but you can catch a glimpse of Wheeler's hard stuff in MLB.com's highlight reel of his spring training debut. It's as advertised, as you'll see fastballs in the mid- and upper-90s that seem to get on the hitter even quicker than that.
While Wheeler's heat itself is fine, one of the knocks on him in the past has been about his fastball command, or lack thereof. Last December, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus wrote that Wheeler's fastball command was "not sharp" and that he had a tendency to work up in the zone.
That's something to keep an eye on while watching Wheeler's debut, but just know that he's by no means incapable of putting his hard stuff where he wants to. If you watch to around the 15-second mark in this video, you'll see a 98-mph fastball that couldn't have been located more perfectly:
It's not all about the hard stuff with Wheeler. Here's the Rosenbaum report on his other elite pitch: "Wheeler's best offering—other than the fastball that is—is a curveball in the upper-70s that’s an absolute hammer with a big shape, tight spin and downer bite."
Rosenbaum's not alone here. Everyone geeks out about Wheeler's curveball, including Parks. He agreed that Wheeler's Uncle Charlie is a plus offering, and that it has the potential to be a "true [seven] pitch." That's out of eight, meaning it's a darn good one.
You can catch a glimpse of Wheeler's curveball at around the 45-second mark in the highlight reel of his spring training debut, but I went ahead and illustrated its break in this image:
The yellow dot at the top shows roughly where the ball starts to break downward, and the second yellow dot shows roughly where the ball goes into full throttle and breaks even more sharply toward the dirt. You can see that that second bit of break happens pretty late in the ball's journey to the plate.
Ian Desmond was able to make contact with this curveball, but he was off balance on his front foot and only managed a weak chopper to third base for an easy 5-3 out. You're going to see a lot of swings like that against Wheeler's curve.
Wheeler also throws a slider, and here's the Rosenbaum report on that:
His slider, thrown in the upper-80s with depth and tilt, is at least above-average at the moment and should be a third plus pitch at maturity. Although it’s not as consistent or devastating as his curveball, his confidence in the offering continues to improve and has led to increased usage during is ascent of the Mets’ system.
Once again, Rosenbaum's not alone. Baseball America's post-2012 scouting report (subscription required) of Wheeler also praised his slider as having plus potential, and he showed how dangerous it can be in the Futures Game last year.
Go back and re-watch the video embedded above to the 18-second mark, and check out the slider Wheeler throws. The break went a little something like this:
Look how late the break started, and then look how the bottom fell out of it. That's a pitch that looked like it was going to be a fastball on the outside corner, and it turned into a pitch down below the zone that the hitter had absolutely no chance of making contact on. It's not even plus yet, and it's already a dangerous pitch.
The weakest pitch in Wheeler's arsenal is his changeup. Here's the Rosenbaum report:
Rounding out Wheeler's impressive arsenal is a changeup that lags behind his other offerings, but will flash above-average potential when he’s at his best. Even if Wheeler struggles to command the pitch at the major league level, it should still serve as a “show me” offering and help keep opposing hitters off his electric fastball and breaking balls.
This is the general consensus on Wheeler's changeup. Baseball America and Jonathan Mayo also called it an average pitch, and there's a GIF over at FanGraphs that does a good job of showing how average it is. He got a swing-and-miss on it in that GIF, but his changeup really isn't a swing-and-miss pitch.
However, it's not like Wheeler's ticket to the majors is also his excuse to stop fine-tuning his changeup. He's going to have plenty of time to continue working on it, and he's going to be downright scary if his changeup becomes as good as his other offerings.
As it is, Wheeler might already be good enough to become the best pitcher on the Mets in the very near future.
Because We Must: Wheeler vs. Harvey
Wheeler's physical goods and repertoire are big reasons why he's such a hyped prospect. But if we're being honest, much of the hype also stems from the fact that he's a Mets prospect. For prospects in either of the New York organizations, increased fanfare comes with the territory.
There's even more fanfare in Wheeler's case because of Harvey's presence. He's set the bar incredibly high, and what everyone wants to know is whether Wheeler can raise it even further.
To this end, Rosenbaum is not as convinced as he once was, but he's still hopeful:
Despite Matt Harvey’s success as a rookie last year, I still believed heading into the 2013 season that Wheeler was destined to become the Mets’ future ace.
However, Harvey’s dominance this spring has made me reconsider that initial projection. It now seems more likely that the organization will have a 1A and 1B ace-type scenario, assuming that the final stages of Wheeler’s development play out as anticipated.
Both pitchers have a similar arsenal that’s highlighted by a plus fastball and at least one swing-and-miss breaking ball, though Harvey’s command is obviously more advanced. At the same time, Wheeler’s walk rate has improved in every minor league season as he’s learned to repeat his delivery with more consistency and harness his excellent pure stuff.
Pay close attention to this next part. It's important:
During his stay in the minor leagues, Harvey never showcased the command that he has since reaching the majors last season; things seemingly clicked for the right-hander as he was forced to execute pitches rather than overpower inferior hitters. It wouldn’t surprise if something similar occurs with Wheeler this season, as he’ll soon learn the importance of locating and sequencing.
All of this rings true with what Andy Martino of the New York Daily News wrote recently:
Other evaluators have noticed...that sometimes Wheeler will be cruising along in a dominant performance, then almost seem to glaze over, losing command and beginning to labor. Despite those observations, no one doubts Wheeler’s raw talent. His repertoire is better than Harvey’s was in Triple-A...and scouts have raised comparisons in the Strasburg and Justin Verlander category.
Still, the dynamic in the Harvey/Wheeler comparison has undergone a subtle shift in the past year. Twelve months ago, the Mets’ front office considered “Wheeler an ace, and Harvey a number two or three,” according to one team official. Now, it is unfair to expect Wheeler to outperform Harvey, who transformed himself into an instant sensation once he hit the major leagues, and is already pitching at an All-Star level.
It's worth it to stop and take a look at some moving pictures that highlight what kind of pitcher Harvey has become. We might as well do that by drooling over the highlights of his near-perfecto against the Chicago White Sox:
You're never going to see a pitcher look bad in a sizzle reel like this one, but just look at Harvey go. He was locating everything, and the White Sox were overmatched against each of his pitches. Harvey's near-perfect game was a more-or-less perfect display of stuff and command. It's amazing to think that the command apparently materialized out of nowhere.
The Mets know that Wheeler has the stuff. His arsenal is very much like Harvey's, if not better. Based on that alone, Wheeler's ceiling is incredibly high.
What we're going to find out is whether Wheeler has the ability to locate and mix his pitches as well as Harvey. As both Rosenbaum and Martino hinted it could be, that could just be a matter of him becoming more focused in a major league environment. If he transitions into the majors like Harvey did, Wheeler might just supplant him as the best pitcher on the Mets.
The fact that we can even think to say that gives you an idea why this particular 23-year-old is as hyped as he is.
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