When he debuted just a few weeks ago, Zack Wheeler was met with tremendous fanfare. Since then, and a 5.09 ERA with nine earned runs given up later, there have been whispers amongst the fan base, the amateur pontiffs in social media, and overly-opinionated professionals like Craig Carton of WFAN, that Wheeler is a bust. While it may be debatable whether or not he was called up too soon, one thing is for sure; he is not the worst pitcher the Mets have ever had. He isn’t even the worst pitcher they’ve had this season.
As he prepares for his fourth Major League career start. we have to keep in mind that many great pitchers have began their careers with shaky starts. Case in point, the greatest pitcher that has ever thrown, Nolan Ryan, lost his first two of three career starts as well. He won his debut and lost back to back starts afterward. The third start he even gave up five runs.
Am I comparing young Wheeler to the greatest of all time? Not hardly. But I bring up Ryan’s first few starts as an example that even the greats don’t master it right away. Can anyone argue that Nolan Ryan isn’t a great? While it may be argued that Wheeler may have been called up to appease the fanbase, even though the team had other options, that doesn’t mean that he will be a bust.
There are theories floating around as to why he has struggled in his last two starts. One being that he is tipping his pitches. Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen has said this will be addressed. Of course he said this after his second start and Wheeler was shelled in the following outing. Another theory comes from Mets legend Keith Hernandez.
On the WPIX broadcast during Wheeler’s last start, Hernandez noted that Wheeler was overusing his fastball and not blending in enough offspeed stuff. He compared Wheeler to Harvey (which really is not very fair) in that they both have lightning fastballs but need to mix in changeups and sliders on occasion just to keep the hitters honest. Wheeler’s bread and butter pitch is his fastball. When he is behind in the count, he goes to it. Hitters are looking for it and rip him.
Hernandez also noted that sometimes young MLB pitchers, with electric stuff like Wheeler has, are urged to take a little off of their fastball for the sake of better control and that when they do so, they get a flat fastball that becomes dramatically easier for a MLB player to handle. There is a fine line between over-throwing and intentionally under-throwing. As Wheeler’s career continues, we must remember that he is just starting out and has a long way to go. He has many more years to put it all together and make he and Harvey look more like a Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver and less like a Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson.
The main issue, unfortunately, is that every Wheeler start will be over-examined as a result of the hype that comes along with his arrival. It is human nature for a fan, let alone a Mets fan, to wonder if their team did the right thing by trading a perennial all-star like Carlos Beltran for this young, unproven phenom. Every start makes the pressure build for Wheeler to prove those fans and this team right. He is most likely pressing as a result. How could he not? He is human. Perhaps, we must be a little more patient and let him learn to let his game come to him rather than just call him a bust after three starts.
There are positives to take out of all three starts. In each start, Wheeler lasted at least five innings and was still throwing mid-90’s on his fastball when he exited. Though issuing walks has gotten him into trouble, they have become fewer in his second and third starts (5,3,2). He has to learn to keep his pitch count down (102, 109, 89). That starts by putting batters away. He had far too many hitters work a full count on him and end up getting on base in one way or another. When he learns to limit that damage and put those hitters away, he will cut that pitch count down, last longer in games and be far more effective.
These are all lessons that he will have to learn at the MLB level. If and when he does, he will be able to put it all together and reach his full potential. Time will tell, but he is still far too young to be labeled a bust or to judge the Beltran trade from two seasons ago on at this point. Three starts, doesn’t make or break a career, but it can become a turning point early.
He can rise to the challenge and adjust like Nolan Ryan did or he can level off and falter into mediocrity. The next several years should be telling.