After starting the season in the minors, Zack Wheeler places right now in the top 10 in the National League in both IP (160.1) and ERA (3.37) and he has career-best numbers in WHIP (1.185) and K/BB ratio (3.18). But there are at least as many people still dubious about his ability to continue this pitching going forward as there are backers who feel like he has a spot among the best hurlers in the league. And that split seemingly extends to people inside the game and not only fans watching from the bleachers.
At the trade deadline this year, there was a lot of interest around Wheeler. After seeing the offers for Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets decided to pull those two guys off the trading block and put Wheeler there, instead. But according to Andy Martino, other clubs were valuing Wheeler on his historical numbers and not the pitcher that he was this year. The Mets declined the chance to sell low and now have another dominating pitcher that other clubs have to dread facing.
We have no idea what offers the Mets received for Wheeler or what they were asking for in return. It certainly makes sense that clubs were trying to pay as little as possible to get a guy who missed two seasons recovering from TJ surgery and who had looked bad before shutting things down in 2017. But did clubs miss the forest because they were staring at the trees? When claiming to want to value Wheeler based on his career-long numbers, did they forget to actually look at his pitching throughout his career?
Let’s start with the bottom line. Through the 2017 season, Wheeler made 66 starts and had a 3.90 ERA. And after throwing six shutout innings on July 29, he had a 4.11 ERA in 2018 in 20 games. That certainly looks like a guy with an established level of performance. Why should clubs have been willing, if not eager, to pay more than that to get Wheeler at the deadline?
Wheeler has the pedigree, the stuff and the results of a top-flight starter. He was the sixth overall pick in the 2009 Draft, he throws in the upper 90s and in his last 13 starts before the deadline Wheeler had a 3.28 ERA. You may sign off on all those things but still be hesitant because of his career numbers mentioned above. But Wheeler’s career numbers are being dragged down because of two times when he was pitching while he was likely hurt.
The two time frames were the end of the 2014 season, before he had the TJ surgery, and the end of his 2017 campaign, before he was shut down with a stress reaction in his right arm. His final five starts of 2014 he had a 4.21 ERA (compared to a 2.78 ERA in the 18 starts before that) and his final six starts of 2017 he had a 9.89 ERA (compared to a 2.91 ERA in the 10 starts prior.)
Through this year’s trade deadline, Wheeler had made 86 starts in the majors. In 75 of those, he had a 3.62 ERA. That’s the equivalent of an SP2 this season. If Wheeler’s last 13 starts of 2018 before the trade deadline wasn’t supposed to define him as a pitcher, why should 11 starts when he was pitching with an injury effectively do the same?
When you’re forecasting players, what they’ve done most recently carries more weight. In his 13 starts before the trade deadline, Wheeler was pitching like a bottom tier SP1 and through the vast majority of his career he had been pitching like a bottom tier SP2. It’s my belief that GMs of other clubs who tried to acquire him as a top tier SP4 got greedy. The important thing for teams acquiring talent at the deadline is to win the pennant, not win the trade.
We’ve had six more starts by Wheeler since the non-waiver trade deadline and in that span, he has a 1.13 ERA in 40 IP. It’s hard to believe that a team like the Brewers wouldn’t want a chance to turn back the clock and pull the trigger on a deal. Of course, all of this comes with the caveat that we don’t know what deals were proposed by either the Mets or potential suitors. All we have to go on is the snippets posted by the mainstream media guys.
A healthy Wheeler here in 2018 is posting numbers that would feel right at home among deGrom’s numbers in his healthy years before this season. Wheeler has a 3.37 ERA and a 1.185 WHIP so far this season. Compare that to deGrom’s 3.53 ERA and 1.187 WHIP in 2017. Another way to look at it would be through Game Scores. If you’re not familiar with that, here’s the Wikipedia article for a definition. It’s weighted so a score of 50 is an average start. Wheeler has had an average or better start 19 times this season, compared to seven times where he’s been below average. Stated in win/loss terms, Wheeler is 19-7. Here are deGrom’s numbers in healthy seasons prior to this year:
In those three seasons, deGrom turned in an average or better start 73 percent of the time. In his career to date, Wheeler has turned in an average or better start 66 percent (61-92) of the time and if you take away those 11 starts from the two time periods detailed above, he has a 69 percent career rate.
Of course it should be pointed out that deGrom’s Game Score record this year is 26-1. Also, prior to this year Wheeler had many more outings in the 50s and 60s than he did 70 and above. Six of Wheeler’s 10 career outings where he produced a Game Score of at least 70 have come here in the 2018 season. Prior to this year, Wheeler has been good. In his last 12 starts here in 2018, he’s been great. Wheeler has a 1.83 ERA in that span, covering 78.2 IP. He has nine Quality Starts in that span and he has an 11-1 Game Score record with four scores in the 70s.
Wheeler is pitching better right now than he has ever before in his career in the majors. His last 12 outings have more than made up for his poor start for the season. Prior to this year, a healthy Wheeler had been a strong pitcher, albeit a frustrating one who nibbled too much and too often saw his night end after six innings due to a high pitch count.
The pre-2018 Wheeler was not a fun guy to watch pitch on most nights. Even his supporters were frustrated by his ability to turn 0-2 counts into 3-2 counts by trying to throw a perfect pitch. But it seems like this, along with the injuries, clouded the issue for too many fans. Regardless, things are different now. Perhaps it’s because he’s finally healthy. Perhaps it’s because he’s matured as a pitcher. Perhaps it’s something that the new pitching brain trust was able to impart that the old regime was unable. Or maybe it’s a combination of all three.
For the purposes of this piece, the “why” is not as important as the “what.” And the what is the development of a pitcher into SP1 territory. At the deadline, it would have been reasonable for a GM to think of Wheeler as an SP2, if he remained healthy. And if a GM had paid for him at that rate, my reading of the tea leaves is that the Mets would have pulled the trigger and no one would have been upset.
And the GM who made that deal would have been rewarded much like the Astros were last year when they picked up Justin Verlander. After passing through waivers, Verlander made five regular season starts for Houston and was 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA. And he continued that domination the first two rounds of the playoffs and was solid in the World Series.
The Astros gambled on Verlander’s age, a gamble magnified by the additional $50 million they would owe him in 2018 and 2019. Of course, it’s easier to gamble on a guy with a Cy Young Award on his resume.
The Phillies gave Franklyn Kilome to acquire Asdrubal Cabrera for the remainder of the year. Kilome had fallen some in the team’s estimation but had been a top 10 guy entering the season. How much better of a prospect would it have taken to grab Wheeler at the deadline? To continue to pick on the Brewers, would CF Tristen Lutz, their #5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, have gotten it done?
The risk was Wheeler’s health. And while that was a legitimate risk, he also came with virtually no salary obligation. He was making $1.9 million for the entire year, so the cost for the final two months would be less than $700K. And he was arbitration-eligible next year. So, in a worst-case scenario where he suffered a horrific accident, they could have non-tendered him and not cost any additional money.
To be sure, Wheeler’s performance since the trade deadline has been better than expected. But this was an outcome on the table, one that advance scouts certainly had the possibility of seeing. There’s the 13 starts before the deadline where he had pitched quite well, which strongly hinted at a top-flight pitcher. The guy from those 13 starts wasn’t worth the risk of $700K and your #5 prospect when you’re in contention for a playoff spot with a shaky back end of the rotation?
It’s always easy to bash someone else in hindsight. But hopefully you view this “bashing” of mine for not paying the freight for an SP2 and not for the failure to predict Wheeler would put up six straight starts from the September 2017 Verlander or 2018 deGrom playbook. Teams that needed pitching should have viewed Wheeler as someone to put up an ERA in the mid 3s. That’s essentially what a healthy Wheeler has done throughout his career and he was better than that the last 13 starts of 2018 before the trade deadline. And he’s been at a superior level the past six outings.