Monday night’s performance was fairly typical for Zach Wheeler this year. He pitched a fairly short outing of 6.1 innings because of high pitch counts, accounting for 113 pitches thrown, five walks, four strikeouts, and one earned run. On a better team, that could have easily led to a win, but Wheeler plays for the New York Mets, and we’ll leave it at that.
A lot of criticism has been thrown Wheeler’s way over the course of the last calendar year; most notably for his lack of pitch efficiency. Since his debut against the Atlanta Braves on June 18, 2013, he’s made a total of 34 starts, or roughly one full season. In 2014, he’s been both brilliant and battered, more recently the latter versus the Oakland Athletics on June 25. Some fans have called for him to be sent down to the minors, while others have suggested he be traded while he still has plenty of value. Let’s see what the numbers say about Wheeler’s maturation, and go from there.
Wheeler’s start against the Athletics was plain ugly. In just 2.0 innings, he allowed six earned runs, one home run, two walks and four strikeouts. The A’s hit him early and often, and put him out of the game quickly, which has been one of the biggest complaints against Wheeler over his short career.
Just the previous start however, Wheeler had received praise for not only recording his first major-level complete game, but his first ever shutout versus the Miami Marlins. He was masterful in that game, needing just 111 pitches to complete the shutout, while tossing 70 of those for strikes. It was a sight for sore Mets eyes, but then Oakland came to town and wiped that smile off Wheeler’s face.
What was the major difference in those two starts? Well, for one thing, Wheeler only threw his change-up 2.1% of the time in the short stint versus Oakland, whereas versus Miami he threw it a season-high 14.4%. Wheeler also threw his fastball 68.8% of the time versus Oakland, tied for the second most he’s thrown it in a game all year. Granted, Wheeler might have thrown the change-up more had he lasted longer versus Oakland, but that’s exactly the problem. When Wheeler gets behind, he relies too often on his fastball.
In the three games Wheeler’s pitched in 2014 where he hasn’t allowed a single earned run, he’s thrown his fastball a combined 58% of the time, and relied on his secondary pitches to compliment that heater. In the seven games where he’s allowed 4+ earned runs, he’s thrown his fastball over 63%. Not a huge difference, but a big enough one for opposing hitters to notice.
Wheeler has a devastating fastball at times, and on average it is the fifth fastest thrown by a starting pitcher this 2014, registering at 94.4 mph. He can even hit 97 mph on occasion, with movement. So when you have a weapon like that, it’s easy to rely on it when things get rough. The problem seems to be that when Wheeler gets hit, he consistently goes back to the fastball, exacerbating the issue. Pitching is disrupting the hitters timing, and when they know the fastball is coming, you play right into their hands.
Now, none of us are pitching coaches, but this seems like a fairly easy fix. That is, until you realize that pitchers are people who feel panic and unease when things aren’t going so well. It therefore becomes hard to break habits if one pitch becomes a fallback. Hitters know this. That is one of the reasons why Wheeler sometimes has short outings with ugly results. If Wheeler can get over that fear of throwing his secondary pitches when the fastball gets hit, he could become a dominant pitcher, and the numbers back that up.
According to FanGraphs, Wheeler has both a great FIP and xFIP, to go along with a 2.46 K/BB%, leaps and bounds better than his 1.83 K/BB% from 2013. Couple that with a WHIP just .02 higher than last year, a noticeable reduction of both his home runs and walks allowed over his first 95 innings pitched this year, and a relatively high BABIP of .332, and there is plenty of reason to believe that Wheeler has been improving, if just slightly.
By looking at Wheeler’s 3-8 record and his 4.45 ERA, sure he looks terrible. By examining his numbers a bit more closely, and understanding why they are the way they are, we can see a much better pitcher just itching to break out. Whether that comes this year, or if this maturation process needs a bit of 2015 to take hold, one thing is certain. Wheeler is a very talented pitcher, and getting better.