How can Zack Wheeler improve this season?

Zack WheelerThe current Mets roster is not high on dynamic personalities. We have Captain America who’s calm, cool and collected, but sometimes a little overlooked because he isn’t flashy. We had, then temporarily lost the Dark Knight of Gotham, who offered up a winning and dominant attitude, which was something Mets fans hadn’t seen in lo these many years. But Zack Wheeler shouldn’t try to be like David Wright or Matt Harvey or anybody else for that matter. Wright will keep being the clean-cut leader he’s always been, and Harvey might keep shouting at Yankee fans over Twitter while he’s on vacation. Wheeler looks to actually pitch in 2014, and in that way he has the potential to be something great in his own right.

Over his first 100 major league innings Wheeler’s 3.42 ERA was solid, but his walks were a point of concern. Even when he looked good in his last start by keeping the other team scoreless, he still walked five. That’s not a receipt for success, and Wheeler knows it. During his first few starts the Mets tinkered with him throwing his changeup more, but with mixed results. It’s not his dominant pitch and probably never will be. Wheeler needs to concentrate on two critical elements of his game: his overall pitch location, and the use of his slider.

Wheeler’s best start of 2013 came in a dominant win on August 15th at San Diego. In 6 innings he let up 1 run, 7 hits, 1 BB, and 12 Ks. What did he throw the most? That’s right, his slider. In fact, he threw it 27.8% of the time. Only one other time during the season did he throw it more than 20%, and those results were 6 Ks, 1 BB.

To better understand the value of each pitch let’s take a look at his Pitch Type Linear Weights on FanGraphs. According to pitch value (wFB/C), which standardizes the value of each pitch bases on a “per 100 pitch” basis, a pitcher usually falls into a range of +1.5 to -1.5 runs. Predictably, Wheeler’s fastball was the most reliable and effective pitch and he scored an average of .63 wFB/C. His slider scored a negative average for the season at -1.87 wSL/C. His curveball and changeup scored a -4.12 wCB/C and       -4.73 wCH/C respectively. So the slider is the second best pitch, even if it scores a negative according to this value.

FanGraphs reminds us to keep critical information in mind; “this statistic has limited predictive power” and “Beware of sample sizes!” One partial year does not make a great sample size, but we work with what we have. Wheeler’s slider had a horrific -23.41 wSL/C during his August 4th start versus Kansas City, so that’s skewing the average a little. But what did he score two starts later in San Diego? 6.15 wSL/C, his second best tally of the season.

Wheeler’s fastball averaged 94.4 in 2013, which will get by most guys and he should use it liberally again in 2014. However, he only threw it only 55.7% of the time that day in San Diego. He also sprinkled in an assortment of curveballs and changeups, but the slider clearly won that day. It is his out pitch and he should be relying upon it more next season. If Wheeler can consistently locate that slider, it will give him two plus pitches with which to deceive hitters.

More than just helping him pitch effectively, the slider might give Wheeler the confidence to become something the Mets sorely need in 2014. The Mets are truthfully without an ace right now, and while no one is expecting Wheeler to step into that role right away or maybe ever, it’s possible he could earn his way into it over the course of the season. If no one expects wonders from Wheeler early on, it gives him time to begin a routine that works best for him, and carry it through the later months of summer. Maybe he wants to use the slider early and often to get hitters off balance. Maybe he wants to save it for the second or third time threw the lineup. However he wants to use that pitch should be up to him and his catcher, but one thing the coaching staff should strongly suggest is that he use that slider more. It’s the most effective compliment he has to his fastball, and hopefully will improve with time and repetition.

Wheeler has a secure job with this club, so Mets fans are going to expect at least some improvement this year over last. With that improvement is an opportunity for him to step into a significant role on this team. It doesn’t mean trying to be Captain America, or the Dark Knight. It means using the abilities he has, and that slider of his is a great weapon to use.

Hold on a second. Captain America? The Dark Knight? Could we have…Slider-Man?

2 comments for “How can Zack Wheeler improve this season?

  1. eraff
    January 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    If Wheeler can provide 200 innings that are something similar to his first 100, it will be a Considerable Success.

    0-Harvey, 0-Gooden is not the usual rate of speed for a young pitcher to become a very good or even great MLB pitcher. I submit Mr. Scherzer’s stat line as “evidence:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/scherma01.shtml

    In all likelihood, the hoped for ascent will include struggle and some hard knocks….and I’ll be delighted if he just stamps his “Star” ticket rapidly, but I can be patient.

  2. Sean Flattery
    January 28, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    And we have Thor!!

    I excited to watch Wheeler pitch a full season in NY. I think he’s gonna be terrific. He’ll have some games where he walks too many, but the pluses will outweigh the minuses considerably.

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