Wheeler's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has suddenly shot up in 2014. This suggests part of his troubles this season are due to some bad luck.
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.