What can Zack Wheeler do to be an ace?

Zack Wheeler3Matt Harvey’s incredible leap forward last season have left Mets fans with perhaps an unrealistic bar with which to judge other pitching prospects by, namely Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero.

This, of course is not to say that this young trio of right-handed flamethrowers can’t develop into dominant starters in the near future.

The first starter of this bunch who should make a significant impact is logically the only one that has made his debut to this point, Wheeler.

While he may not have posted the flashy numbers of other rookie hurlers like Sonny Gray and Michael Wacha, Wheeler certainly has the makeup to be as good as those two were.

The first promising indicator is that Wheeler’s mechanics are remarkably consistent, as evidenced by the chart below.  The consistent release point is just under six feet off the ground and about 1.5 feet left of center (click all images to embiggen).

Wheeler Release Points by Pitch

Here we see how difficult it is for hitters to differentiate between fastball, offspeed, and breaking ball based upon release point against Wheeler.

Wheeler Release Points by Pitch Category

Now there was some controversy last season about Wheeler tipping his pitches, but that was largely found to be a mechanical flaw of where he would hold his hands prior to his windup as opposed to where he would release the ball.  More on that later.  As the charts above show, the point at which the ball was released by Wheeler was at very least barely distinguishable.

When viewing this chart keep in mind that nearly all of these pitches come from almost the exact same release point. That means the batter has to determine the pitch Gray is throwing after release, before deciding whether or not to swing.

Take the chart below for example, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.  It shows that the horizontal movement on Wheeler’s pitches ranges from -9.06 inches on his changeup to 6.83 inches on his curveball.  It also shows that the vertical movement ranges from 9.63 inches on his fastball, to -9.65 inches on the curve.  That gives his pitches an average range of 306.35 square inches from the point it is released.  He can throw any one of five pitches from roughly the same point and have them wind up somewhere in the 400 to 500 inches that the strike zone typically encompasses.

Wheeler Pitch Movement

With a variety of different pitches and movements coming all from the same release point, Wheeler should seemingly be able to generate more swings and misses, but the data doesn’t quite show this yet.  Take a look at this table from Fangraphs:

Wheeler Plate Discipline

We see that Wheeler throws about a league-average amount of his pitches in the strike zone, and that batters swing at about a league-average percentage of those strikes.  All the way in the last column, though, we see that opposing batters had just an 8.8 swinging strike percentage, five percent less than the league average number.

That seems strange for someone with stuff as good as Wheeler’s, so let’s get into the numbers a little more with some more data from Brooks Baseball.

Wheeler Pitch Usage

Wheeler Sabermetric Outcomes

Wheeler Whiff Percentages

The first chart shows that Wheeler really, and I mean really likes to throw his slider when he’s ahead in the count to right handed batters, but keeps his pitch selection a little less predictable against lefties, relying more on the fastball and curve.

The second chart demonstrates the sabermetric outcomes of when Wheeler throws his pitches.  The column of interest to us here is the Whiff/Swing one, which is essentially the percentage of time the batters miss when they swing at the pitch.

This chart shows that Wheeler’s breaking balls generate significantly more swings and misses than his other pitches, though as the third chart shows, the overall swinging strike percentage does not necessarily reflect this.

One possible explanation for this is what I alluded to earlier batters are finding it easier to lay off of Wheeler’s difficult breaking balls because he has a tendency to tip his pitches.

Back in June, Eno Sarris of Fangraphs analyzed this and had this to say: “I see three different pitches, three distinctly different resting spots for his glove. The curveball is close and at the letters, the fastball shows more separation from his body at about the same height, and the slider comes to a rest close and a little bit lower than the curve.”

Once the league figured this out (which didn’t take long) they were able to identify the pitches earlier and lay off if they judged that the ball would wind up outside of the zone.

Now take another look back at the Fangraphs data.  We see that Wheeler’s O-Swing% was 6.8 percent below league average, and his opponent’s O-Contact% was 3.8 percent above league average.

Could it be that Wheeler’s pitch tipping is contributing to batters being able to lay off pitches that break out of the strike zone and make better contact with balls when they do swing?  Possibly.  It is also possible that with a sample size larger than 100 innings pitched, these numbers could regress just out of random variation.

For Wheeler to be able to take the next step forward in 2014, he needs to do a better job at masking (i.e.- not tipping) his pitches.  Simply improving in that regard should help his swinging strike percentage improve, and with it his strikeouts should tick up.

The bigger problem for Wheeler is not his pitch tipping, but his control.  Let’s go back to the Fangraphs data.  Wheeler threw a first-pitch strike 52% of the time, 15.9 percent less frequent than league average.  This is not good, but it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who followed Wheeler’s minor league development – the knock on him was always that he lacked control.

But could there be a reason for optimism?

Consider the following graph, once again courtesy of Brooks Baseball, showing the percentage of pitches thrown for strikes by Wheeler in his starts last year.  It is important to note that even a control pitcher like Cliff Lee will most times have more balls be categorized as out of zone, his average is just closer to 50 percent than Wheeler’s is.

Wheeler IZ OZ Chart

We see that after some initial struggles, Wheeler settled down in August, then struggled more in September, possibly because of wearing down.  The stats show that the time where Wheeler was more consistently around the strike zone, he was more effective.  In the month of August, Wheeler held opposing batters to a wOBA of .290, had a 3.27 K:BB ratio, and a 2.78 FIP, all season bests.

If Wheeler can sustain that level of control for a significant portion (if not all) of the 2014 season, we should see him take a great leap forward toward becoming the ace that he has the potential to be.

Joe Vasile is the voice of the Fayetteville (NC) SwampDogs of the Coastal Plain League.

3 comments for “What can Zack Wheeler do to be an ace?

  1. Chris F
    March 24, 2014 at 10:53 am

    One bit of advice to Zack: control (aka, throw strikes).

  2. March 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

    I think the tipping pitches thing was fixed pretty early. The Sarris piece was written after Wheeler’s second start and my belief is that it was fixed after one more start.

  3. Patrick Albanesius
    March 25, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    1-My brain now hurts. 2-“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” 3-Nicely written.

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