5 Takeaways from Zack Wheeler's Early MLB Season Returns
The New York Mets acquired Zack Wheeler in 2011, expecting him to develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter. While the 23-year-old is not producing numbers close to that goal, Wheeler has shown plenty of flashes of brilliance and is still very young.
In just over a month, Wheeler has already had a season full of ups and downs.
Wheeler was good but inconsistent last month, finishing with a 3.99 ERA, 31 strikeouts and 11 walks in 29.1 innings. After getting shelled in his Subway Series debut for seven hits, six walks and five earned runs in 4.1 innings, Wheeler now has an ugly 1-3 record, 4.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP.
In May, Wheeler has allowed 15 hits, 13 walks and 10 strikeouts in 14.1 innings.
Here are the 5 biggest takeaways from Wheeler’s early MLB season:
Inconsistency Remains a Problem
The long-held knock on Wheeler is that he is more of a "thrower" rather than a pitcher. In other words, Wheeler is a fast, overpowering pitcher but not a consistent, complete pitcher.
So far, it would be tough to argue against that notion.
After beginning the season with two middling outings, Wheeler concluded April with three straight quality starts. But Wheeler also averaged far fewer walks and more strikeouts in the two bad games than the three quality outings.
This month, Wheeler had his best start of the season sandwiched between his two worst starts of the season.
In the two poor May starts, Wheeler gave up a combined 13 hits, eight walks and nine earned runs along with just three strikeouts in 8.1 innings. But against an upstart Miami Marlins offense, Wheeler turned in his second quality outing against them already this season: 6.0 shutout innings with just two hits and seven strikeouts.
He did walk five batters that game, though.
Wheeler has advanced in some areas and regressed in others. He is keeping the ball down better than last year but is also giving up more hits than last year.
At this point, it is impossible to tell what kind of game Wheeler will have when he takes the mound.
Command Has Improved Very Little
The hard-throwing Wheeler suffered a lot last season due to poor command. This season, the problem is still there but so too is a moderate improvement.
In 2013, Wheeler averaged 4.14 BB/9 in 100.0 innings, a disappointing figure for a potential ace. This season, the figure fell to 3.51 BB/9 in his first six starts.
However, Wheeler had an ugly 11 walks in his last two starts (10.1 innings), bringing the figure to 4.95.
If Wheeler can learn to aggressively throw strikes when he needs to, he will get more batters out, throw fewer pitches and go deeper into games. But his command remains average, and he has yet to go more than 6.1 innings in a game this season.
Considering Wheeler currently leads the majors with an average of 18.2 pitches per inning, at least things can only get better for him.
On the bright side, Wheeler is doing much better at keeping hits in the ballpark.
After giving up a home run in his first two starts, Wheeler rattled off five straight games without giving up a home run. Three of those games were away from pitcher-friendly Citi Field, too. Since Wheeler is a power pitcher, that may bode well for his near future.
Wheeler has shown glimpses of his potential but still has a long way to go.
Lefties Have Figured Him out
In 2013, lefties hit just .259/.371/.395 with 11 extra-base hits in 162 at-bats against Wheeler. Through 67 at-bats this season, lefties are hitting a whopping .343/.439/.522 with eight extra-base hits.
By comparison, righties are currently hitting just .235/.312/.296.
Part of that success for lefties is from an extraordinary .407 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That number is outrageously high, and there is little chance it stays put all season. Eventually, Wheeler will run into some luck and that batting average should regress toward the mean.
Lefties are particularly dominant against Wheeler away from home, where they are hitting .405/.510/.641 in 50 at-bats.
Interestingly, lefties have a .350 BABIP against Wheeler at home but are only hitting .250/.364/.393.
Citi Field is a favorable stadium for any pitcher, but these home numbers play in Wheeler’s favor. Not surprisingly, the result is a slight improvement on his total numbers with a 3.50 ERA in 18.0 home innings.
Wheeler must build on the modest success at home against lefties and learn what is working for him. If he plans to turn things around this season, he must figure it out quickly.
Advanced Metrics Surprisingly Work in His Favor
While Wheeler’s walk rate and 4.35 ERA are well below average, he is still having a promising season for the Mets.
Last season, Wheeler relied far too much on his fastball. As a young power pitcher, this is not surprising. Wheeler wanted to prove his worth, so he did what he does best: Throw the ball hard.
According to fangraphs.com, in 2013 Wheeler threw a fastball on 71.1 percent of his pitches.
This season, that number has dipped to 64.1 percent.
Opposing players are going after more of the off-speed pitches, too. As a result, Wheeler is getting more strikeouts and more grounders. So far, his K/9 has increased from 7.56 last season to 8.45, and his groundball percentage is up from 43.2 percent to an impressive 52.8 percent.
In fact, some of Wheeler’s misfortune this season can be attributed to bad luck.
Currently, the BABIP against Wheeler is .349, tied for seventh-worst in the majors. Last year, Wheeler’s BABIP was an incredible .275. The league average is generally around .300.
Moreover, the current contact rate and swing rate against Wheeler remains similar to last year’s numbers.
The only notable differences are that Wheeler has more first-pitch strikes and opposing batters are making contact on fewer pitches outside the strike zone.
But since Wheeler is throwing fewer fastballs, this outcome is expected. Instead, this suggests that a lot of Wheeler’s ineffectiveness is only due to the abnormally high BABIP.
Digging deeper, when players do make contact, Mets defenders are also not making Wheeler’s job any easier this year.
Wheeler’s fielding independent pitching (FIP), a measure of his ERA with a league-average defense, is 3.76. That difference of 1.18 between his FIP and actual ERA is the ninth-worst in the league, meaning Wheeler has some of the worst defensive support in the league.
Considering Wheeler’s FIP last season was much worse than his ERA, this year’s surface-level numbers could be a lot worse (4.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP).
In fact, batters may actually be performing worse against Wheeler this season.
Aside from the higher groundball rate, Wheeler’s fly ball rate, line drive rate and home run to fly ball rate have all improved.
Wheeler has been disappointing but also unlucky this season. If the inflated BABIP drops to a normal level, Wheeler should see a significant turnaround this season.
He Will Develop, but in Time
Wheeler has produced average numbers in his brief career, but the best is yet to come for him.
Some days, Wheeler has it all working for him and he is unhittable. But other times, Wheeler is off and lacks command all game.
It is also worth noting that Wheeler has a fairly unorthodox pitching motion. A lot of body parts are moving at once, which makes it tougher to pinpoint the problem when Wheeler is slumping. On top of that, it is tougher to make adjustments once the problems are found.
As a result, Wheeler has long stretches of both good and poor pitching.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Wheeler’s development may take longer than expected.
Yet, as the advanced metrics portrayed, Wheeler is already showing improvement. He is getting more grounders and fewer fly balls, which can enhance a pitcher’s stats naturally over time.
Wheeler already boasts incredible stuff, favorable metrics and improving secondary pitches. It is only a matter of time until he is no longer just a thrower.
Stats via ESPN.com, mlb.com, baseball-reference.com