Former first-rounders Lincecum and Wheeler headed in different directions

Zack WheelerSunday’s pitching matchup provides an interesting contrast of former first-round picks of the Giants in Tim Lincecum and Zack Wheeler. The two hurlers, drafted three years apart, couldn’t be more different from one another. One is struggling to find his former greatness and the other is still searching to see if he has greatness within him.

The 10th pick of the 2006 Draft, Lincecum rocketed to the majors and made 24 starts with the Giants the year after he was drafted. He went 18-5 in 2008, winning the first of his back-to-back Cy Young Awards. Over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Lincecum amassed 14.6 fWAR and appeared to be unstoppable.

The next two campaigns were significantly worse, yet few could argue with a guy who posted 429 IP with 451 Ks in what were viewed as “down” years. But Lincecum continued to slide and over the 2012-13 seasons, he put up a combined 20-29 record and a 4.76 ERA. A free agent following the 2013 campaign, many thought he would move on from San Francisco and a few even imagined him moving cross country to try to re-establish his value with the Mets.

Meanwhile, Wheeler was the sixth pick in the 2009 Draft. A high school guy, Wheeler spent more time in the minors but both made their MLB debut at age 23, with Wheeler notching 17 starts in his rookie season. But while Lincecum set the world on fire in his sophomore campaign, Wheeler has had a much more ordinary year to date, with some questioning if he even has the necessary stuff to be more than a back-of-the-rotation guy.

The thing that escapes notice of most fans is that Wheeler has pitched better so far in 2014 than he did a year ago and that they should be happy with his performance. His strikeouts are up, while both his walks and homers are down. Wheeler is getting more grounders and batters are hitting noticeably fewer line drives against him.

Lincecum signed a two-year, $35 million contract with the Giants before even hitting free agency. Despite the extra money from the national TV contract, it seemed a big overpay for the production received the previous two seasons from the former ace. It seemed to be a wager on Lincecum being able to bounce back to 2011 numbers.

It’s difficult for anybody to look at the early results and call it a good signing for the Giants. Lincecum carries a 5.01 ERA into today’s start and while his FIP is nearly a run lower, he’s still been essentially a replacement-level pitcher this year according to FanGraphs.

San Francisco has been the best team in baseball so far in 2014 but it’s had very little to do with the performance of Lincecum.

Meanwhile, fans bend over backwards to nitpick the performance of Wheeler, who has already matched last year’s loss total, while winning just twice in seven decisions. Aside from his record, they question his pitch decisions, complain that he doesn’t go deep enough in his games and wonder why walks continue to plague him.

While Wheeler has yet to reach 7 IP in a game this season, he does have a Quality Start in eight of his 12 appearances this year. In his last three games, he’s allowed just 3 ER in 19.2 IP and has a nearly 8.0 K/BB ratio. With average support, Wheeler could be 3-0 in these games. Instead, the Mets have lost two of the three.

We should be past the idea of looking first to Win-Loss record as a measure of a pitcher’s quality. A look at Wheeler’s peripherals, the things that he controls, should make all Mets fans happy. Judging simply on production, no one would trade Wheeler for Lincecum in 2014. Then you add in age and salary and the gulf only widens.

Lincecum was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball over the 2008-09 seasons and for four years he pitched at an ace level. But that guy is not coming back and the sooner the baseball world in general and Giants fans in particular come to peace with that, the better off we’ll be. Actually, my guess is Giants fans have already come to terms with what Lincecum now is. Amazing what having the best record in baseball can do for your perspective.

But have Mets fans accepted what Wheeler is now?

Among 100 pitchers who qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboards, Wheeler ranks 34th in FIP (3.36) and tied for 29th in xFIP (3.45). Those are numbers to celebrate.

Of course, we’ll have to see how he does today against a team that seems to be firing on all cylinders. If he continues his strong pitching from his last three outings, many fans will start to believe in him again. But a repeat of his performance against the Yankees will only reinforce the naysayers.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Wheeler and suggested people stop complaining about him. Among the comments were a plea (even if given tongue-in-cheek) to trade him, an invitation not to sugar coat things and a suggestion that all he is now is a #4 SP.

Perhaps because my expectations coming into the season for Wheeler were lower than most, but I’ve been thrilled with his output so far in 2014. He’s added nearly 1.5 to his K/9 rate while he’s shaved over a third of a walk from his BB/9 ratio. All while throwing 11% more grounders than a season ago.

Meanwhile, Lincecum has not rebounded to previous levels, essentially matching my expectations.

One game does not a season make yet it will be hard not to compare these former Giants first-round picks today. If back in 2011, you suggested the Giants traded Lincecum instead of Wheeler for Carlos Beltran, you likely would have been laughed out of the room. Now the Giants can only wonder –- what if….

A dominating start from Wheeler today could be a symbolic moment for everyone. While he’s already pitched twice against the team that drafted him, he didn’t particularly distinguish himself, as he allowed 9 BB in 12 IP against the Giants in 2013. Imagine what a 7 IP, 0 ER, 2 BB performance today would do for everyone involved.

As for me, an end to the five-game losing streak would be good enough, regardless of how it happens.

6 comments for “Former first-rounders Lincecum and Wheeler headed in different directions

  1. eraff
    June 8, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Wheeler is a work in progress— he’s a 24 year old with a strike out per inning and he’s giving you a very competitive effort in most games. Call that a #4 Now…. call it whatever you want…. I will take it!!!

    28 starts in….with upside and a great arm— This is what Yong Pitching Looks Like!!!! I like what he Is…. I think he can be better.

    Just for “fun”…here’s Max Scherzer’s Stats—note the first 3-4 years…

  2. Chris F
    June 8, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Don’t hold your breath on Wheeler.

    • eraff
      June 8, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      A 24 Year Old competitive Major League starter…That’s what he Is. No holding breath involved. The fact that he has upside is great. The idea that you or anyone would insist that he’s a flop if he’s not more now…???? Now????

      That’s not the way it works—pure and simple. It’s a greater than greatly misinformed expectation.

      I’m not expecting very much other than Wheeler pitching a good number of competitive innings. I’m enjoying “The Young”.

      This is what the last step of player development looks like. You watch him become what he can become.

  3. Jerry Grote
    June 9, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Brief remarks here:
    Compare Tim and Zack’s first year and second year BB/9.

    His last outing against the class of the NL notwithstanding, like Brian I am slowly changing my mind once again on the Beltran-return.

  4. Patrick Albanesius
    June 9, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Wheeler deserved his criticism earlier in the season, but then fully deserved the credit for his last few stellar performances. I think he pitched a little better than his numbers versus SF, but he’s still not the consistent quality starter we need him to be. His recent improvements give me lots of hope though.

  5. Chris F
    June 9, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    With the perfection of hindsight from the Sunday disaster, but sincere interest in this, I cant help but wonder why one metric supersedes another? Wheeler has a WHIP of 1.40, which puts him at a 62/80 rank, or quite near the bottom. When people make contact the BABIP is .330, good for 68/80. He is basically mid pack for BA. He also leads the league in pitches per inning pitched (at 17.9, and tied for 3rd in MLB), which is very taxing on the pen. He has a terrible ERA, near the worst of all qualified pitchers. I guess to me these say there is a lot to be desired.

    I get that this is a snapshot of 2014. But I am not the least bit impressed with Wheelers total performance this year. He was billed as an ace…a 1 or 2. So far none of his MLB numbers indicates that is what we are going to get. In the 3 starts previous to Sunday, he faced terrible opponents. Looking at his earned runs by start, when he faces tough opposition (Nats, Yankees, Col, Braves, Giants etc), the run counts climb.

    Wheeler is what he is and hopefully he will improve so that all the numbers begin to conform around positive signs. Is he making ground? Some things yes, some things no. My feeling is that he is not heading to the top of the rotation anytime soon and we should all be quite prepared to accept he is not any sort of ace. That itself is no crime…but we need to temper the hype for sanity sake…and for Syndergaard’s sake.

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