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.