Zack Wheeler and his 2018 role with the Mets

After not pitching in the majors since 2014, Zack Wheeler came back to be on the Opening Day roster and made 17 starts in 2017. Heading into Spring Training there was speculation how to proceed with Wheeler, whether he would be better off in the majors or minors, as well as if he was best served being a starter or a reliever. But once both Seth Lugo and Steven Matz needed to open the year on the disabled list, Wheeler by necessity became a starter for the Mets.

Wheeler finished the year with a 3-7 record and a 5.21 ERA, so it’s certainly open season to ask if he would have been better served in another role. Adding to the questions is the fact that he ended the year on the DL with a stress reaction in the humerus bone of his right arm. The humerus is the long bone in the arm between the elbow joint and the shoulder. Previously, Wheeler had TJ surgery on his elbow. After being put on the DL, Wheeler said the following to MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo:

I sort of expected bumps in the road coming back this year,” Wheeler said. “It’s just unfortunate because everything else feels awesome — elbow, shoulder, everything feels great. And that’s why it’s so frustrating for me. The surgery repair feels great. This is something stupid and small that I can’t help. I just want to go out there and pitch, but this is holding me back for a bit.”

It’s next to impossible to predict how Wheeler will progress in his recovery from this injury. When it first happened the expectation was that he would return in 2017. Adding to the difficulty is that we don’t know if the stress is occurring near the elbow or near the shoulder.

When looking to Google for more information on baseball players with stress reactions, the first entry was a study about tennis players. Sifting through three pages of results, there were only three named baseball players in addition to Wheeler.

First was Matt Garza, who suffered the injury in 2012 and last pitched on July 21. He did not appear in the majors in 2013 until the third week of May. But Garza suffered a strained lat injury in Spring Training, which caused the delay to his next season. Garza went 10-6 with a 3.82 ERA that season, with a career-high 3.24 K/BB ratio.

Next was Michael Wacha, who suffered a stress reaction in his scapula in 2014. Wacha returned at the start of 2015 and had perhaps his best year, going 17-7 and making the All-Star team. And there was an article in 2010 about Phillies prospect Jiwan James, who switched from being a pitcher to a hitter after suffering a stress reaction in the minors to his humerus.

A stress reaction can be the precursor to a stress fracture although there were no reports of Wheeler having a fracture of any kind.

So, let’s assume that our new training staff will have Wheeler in position to contribute at the start of 2018. You know, because we’re optimists. What can we expect from the once highly-touted prospect?

Wheeler got roughed up in his first start of 2017, as he allowed 5 ER in 4 IP. But in his next 10 starts, he had a 2.91 ERA and a 1.330 WHIP in 58.2 IP. That WHIP is almost identical to the marks he put up previously in the majors (1.339) as was his average of around 5.2 IP per start. Unfortunately, Wheeler made six more starts last season and in those games he totaled just 24.2 IP and a 9.89 ERA.

Reports at the time indicated that Wheeler was pitching with the injury for a bit before shutting things down. But we can’t assume that was the only cause of his poor final six starts of the year.

There have always been two main criticisms of Wheeler, both somewhat related. The first is that he didn’t go deep into games and the second was that he allowed too many walks. Wheeler finished 2017 with a 4.2 BB/9 and during his 10-game stretch referenced earlier, he had a 3.8 mark, identical to what he posted in 2014.

So, walk rate is another areas where we saw similar results to Wheeler in his first stint with the Mets.

Wheeler still has to be viewed as an injury risk, a guy unlikely to give the team 32 starts in a season. But what’s the point where he’s still viable as a starting pitcher? If Wheeler can average 5.2 IP per start and give you 25 starts at a 3.50 ERA, would you want that in your rotation? How about if that number was 20 starts or 15?

There’s no right answer to that question. The other thing to consider with Wheeler is what he does in his other starts and how successful you can be in limiting those. Wheeler had seven starts outside his stretch of 10 strong ones that essentially negated the value he provided when he was good. The Mets were 7-10 in games started by Wheeler last year.

In the past, Wheeler has expressed a strong preference to being a starting pitcher. That’s not surprising as not too many guys who’ve been starters in the majors clamor for a move to the pen. And there’s also the question if being a reliever would add more stress to Wheeler’s arm. Recall that the Mets utilized Lugo as a starter last year because they felt that it would be relatively easier to keep him healthy if he wasn’t coming in out of the pen.

One option might be to use Wheeler and Lugo as piggyback guys, like they do in the minors. You could rotate things, having one game with Wheeler as the starter and Lugo as the reliever and the next start you flip their roles. Then you have to decide if that’s the most efficient use of resources, essentially having a relief pitcher going just once every five days.

My personal preference would be to utilize Wheeler as a starter on a short leash, with that leash being not necessarily for innings in a particular game but for overall performance. If he gives up 15 ER over 3.2 IP in consecutive starts, like what happened in his 12th and 13th starts of 2017, he doesn’t get to make a third start. A Jacob deGrom or a Noah Syndergaard would have a longer leash in that situation than what Wheeler should have.

Because of all of the injuries, both that have already happened and ones that we expect to happen in 2018, the new manager will have to be prepared to juggle his starters. It’s not going to be easy but guys like Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero will be in the same boat, if at different times of the year. And we should apply the same standard to Matt Harvey and Matz, too.

13 comments for “Zack Wheeler and his 2018 role with the Mets

  1. MattyMets
    October 15, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I like the Lugo/Wheeler piggyback idea, but I’m starting to think that it’s time to move on from either Wheeler or Matz. They are both such frustrating question marks. Maybe one can be packaged in a trade and let them try to find luck elsewhere.

  2. Rabbit
    October 15, 2017 at 11:48 am

    5 inning starters looks like the new norm. Wheeler Lugo piggyback idea makes sense. And how about Matz gseelman while we’re at it?

  3. TexasGusCC
    October 15, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    An article every Met should read, including our Sultan of the “Swing Hard in Case You Hit it”, Sandy Alderson.

    https://www.si.com/mlb/2017/10/15/justin-verlander-astros-yankees-alcs

  4. Pal88
    October 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I’m not ready to throw in the towel on either Lugo or Wheeler…I agree with the short leash approach…give each 4/5 starts and then decide…

  5. Chris F
    October 15, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Seems like thats the only way to build value, either for direct benefit, or for trade value. Basically, Wheeler cant throw strikes. His control has been, and remains, a big weakness. Unfortunately, the control issues are on his fastball, which makes it hard to set up other pitches. I know he wants to be a starter, but so far he just has never come close to that, or come near the productivity of Beltran.

  6. TexasGusCC
    October 15, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    In an interview last week, Jerry Blevins said that the new norm for a starter is six innings to avoid going a third time through that lineup, to minimize familiarity. Too, we have seen that trend throughout baseball. In fact, we have seen the third time be when the offense is more comfortable. Blevins said only #1 and #2 pitchers will have that luxury.

    Therefore, assuming Wheeler doesn’t yet have the stamina for any extension passed the 5.2 inning mark and is tested as a #5 starter, 25 starts at 5.2 per start is about 140 innings and certainly a good number for a pitcher that has missed this much time. Piggybacking is done in the minors for 4 inning starters, but that isn’t the case with Zack.

    With eight man bullpens and “proper usage”, there isn’t a reason why any team couldn’t navigate the sixth and seventh innings successfully. However, that calls for a variety of different relievers that can give a variety of looks to the other team, but most importantly, in those innings, give a consistent performance rather than a dominant one.

  7. Jimmy P
    October 15, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    I think Morrow of the Dodgers is an interesting comp for Wheeler. A great arm beset by injuries, converted to setup man who has thrived.

    Wheeler gets a lot of whining because he’s not perfect, but he’s a formidable and at times overpowering pitcher. Mets pen needs another top-shelf arm and the organization doesn’t have the will to sign a Wade Davis. Wheeler might give them what they need on the cheap.

    He’s missed a lot of time and was clearly, obviously hurt for some of last season. Looking at overall stats for injured pitchers is just meaningless. I like him throwing gas in the 7th or 8th inning. It might help keep him healthy.

    • TexasGusCC
      October 15, 2017 at 6:06 pm

      Love it Jimmy, said it Jimmy, but wonder if Mr. Alderson allows such a move since it was one of his ballyhooed trades.

  8. Chris F
    October 15, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    Wheeler’s biggest case to keep himlut of the pen is simple: hes usually terrible early in games, particularly the first inning. He squeezes out starts by settling down by the third. This is not a good sign for a reliever, who needs to start fast.

  9. Metsense
    October 15, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    Wheeler should be added to the competition as fourth/fifth starter along with the other inconsistent unreliables of Harvey, Matz, Lugo and Gsellman and the best two should be in the rotation. The Mets need to add a #3 or better starter to the roster to stabilize the rotation and avoid a repeat of 2017. Wheeler ended the season on the DL and has lost so much time that it has impeded his development honing his skills and control. A 4+ BB/9 is a daunting stat to overcome to be successful pitcher. It would be surprising if he wins a rotation spot because Lugo may be a consistently better starter. Wheeler needs a strong, healthy 2018, even if he ends up in the bullpen.

    • Jimmy P
      October 15, 2017 at 9:42 pm

      Again, you are quoting injury numbers here and I don’t feel that’s instructive. I believe in the healthy Zack Wheeler, not the guy trying to pitch through injuries where he didn’t get out of the 2nd inning in two consecutive starts. Look at that 10-game stretch before he got hurt again.

      I’m not against him starting, but you must recognize that he’d surely be capped at — say — 150 innings. Hard to believe he’s be able to go and effective in late August (if he starts). Respectfully, it’s just strange for you to argue for Wheeler as a starter and in the same post talk about the need for an “innings eater.”

      The pen needs a lot of help; he might be an answer. My feeling is: worth a try.

      I should add that the “piggyback” idea is simply never going to happen. I’ve seen nothing from the organization that they are inclined toward that kind of thinking.

      • Metsense
        October 16, 2017 at 7:59 am

        Wheeler has a career BB/9 of 4.0, more specifically a 4.1 in 2013 and a 3.8 in 2014. These are not “injury numbers” but who he was. Hopefully he will stay in that range in 2018. Last year in MLB there were 150 rotation spots and only 75 pitchers , or 50% of them, pitched more than 150 innings. To have a 4th or 5th starter pitch more innings would be an unreasonable expectation. Wheeler would be a 4th or 5th starter if he can crack the rotation. Finally, ” a #3 or better starter” should not be interpreted as an “innings eater” because an “innings eater” would not be a good enough upgrade for the rotation. An “innings eater” is a term that I deliberately avoid when posting comments. Unfortunately, it is a term that Sandy uses and I interpret that as the GM setting low expectations.

  10. TJ
    October 15, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    In a disastrous 2017, the biggest Met problem was the pitching, which put up historical worst ever numbers for the franchise. Despite the injuries and bad performances, they still have a bundle of talent, even if some of it will not live up to the hype. Two key additions this offseason can leave them well-positioned for 2018. A high quality back-end arm is crucial, as is a rotation stabilizer. These will cost money, and likely leave them with only one modest position player move, but pitching comes first.

    Who does what doesn’t concern me so much. What concerns me is 1,) that they have an excellent plan for the guys that don’t win a starting spot and 2.) that the new manager has a top notch pen that will allow him to avoid overuse/burnout of any members.

    My hope is that they have a reasonably healthy camp, and that the runners up from the group of Matz, Gsellman, Lugo, Wheeler, perhaps Montero, become multi-inning pen options that can handle workloads in innings 5-7 and then be permitted to get 1-2 off days for rest/recovery.

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