The Mets staked Zack Wheeler to a five-run lead on Tuesday but lost the game. But it wasn’t Wheeler’s fault, unless you want to ding him for not pitching a complete game. Wheeler was pulled in the seventh inning and the bullpen brought its usual trusty fire relief tools to seal the game. Who knew gasoline was a bad thing to use? Wheeler’s final line was 6.1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB and 5 Ks.
For the year, Wheeler has a 4.36 ERA but he’s actually pitched much better than that here recently. In his last nine games, he has a 3.32 ERA and a 1.140 WHIP. And you can make the case he’s pitched better than that, as one game the bullpen gave up a bunch of inherited runners and in another game he went to the well once too often with a high fastball to Cody Bellinger, who hit a grand slam homer.
Regardless, in purely subjective terms, Wheeler looks different on the mound these days. He always looked like a pitcher, with his broad shoulders and his long, lean frame. But now he acts like one out there. He seems confident, like a guy who knows he should get outs when he’s in the game. Of course it helps when he’s hitting 99 on the radar gun.
But perhaps the best thing about Wheeler here recently is that we’ve seen less nibbling when he gets ahead of the batter. In the past, it seemed he tried to throw a perfect pitch and chasing perfection just let to balls and higher pitch counts. Now he’s trying to get the batter to swing at his pitch, which could be a curve in the dirt of a fastball above the letters, rather than punching him out as he looks at an unhittable offering on the corner of the plate.
In these last nine games, covering 57 IP, Wheeler has just 18 BB. That’s a 2.84 BB/9 and that’s a significant improvement over anything he’s done previously in the majors in this category. Last year, he had a 4.17 BB/9 and his career-best mark coming into the season was the 3.84 mark he posted in 2014.
But it’s not just walks that he’s improving on here in the last two months. He’s surrendered just three homers in this stretch. In his first seven games of the season, he gave up 6 HR in 38 IP. He’s limited opposing batters to a .583 OPS in his last 57 innings and it’s not coming with some unsustainable BABIP, as hitters have a .288 mark against him.
The question is if this is just some hot streak and if we’re destined to see Wheeler revert to the frustrating guy he’s been most of his career up until this point. Or is this the beginning of a real change?
Wheeler had a nice 10-start stretch last year, where he had a 2.91 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. But he followed that up with six starts where he allowed 26 ER in 23.2 IP before ending on the DL for the remainder of the year.
So, is it a hot streak? Or is it a guy who’s finally healthy who’s picked up a nice tip or two from his new manager and pitching coach and who no longer has to throw to rotten catchers?
In last night’s game, Ron Darling indicated that the player he gets asked the most by from advance scouts from other teams is Wheeler. This would seem to indicate that other teams think he might be a worthwhile trade target. Do you hold onto the two aces and deal someone like Wheeler, instead? And if the Mets go that route, can they get a solid trade haul in return?
No one wants to see the guy from the first seven games of 2018 on the mound again. But do you want to see the one from the last nine pitching and having success for another team? It’s one of many decisions that face the Mets’ new front office here as we head towards the trade deadline.
Despite the ugly start, Wheeler has a shot to finish the year with a 3.0 or better fWAR, as he currently sits with a 1.6 mark after the Mets have played 82 games. You want to collect above average guys on your club and last year there were only 27 pitchers in the majors who reached that 3.0 level. And it’s not like 2017 was a huge outlier, as there were only 33 in 2016, 32 in 2015 and 31 in 2014.
It’s difficult to think of Wheeler in terms of being one of the top starters in the game, a guy on the edge of being an SP1. The Mets don’t have to think that he is. But if they decide to trade him, they better get that type of return. The former sixth overall player taken is finally pitching up to his potential. He’s a guy you trade for, not a guy to take as a throw-in to a deal.