If you asked anyone who watched baseball in 2018 – fan, player, executive – who the best pitcher on the Mets was last year, the unanimous answer would be Jacob deGrom. And this is how it should be. In his five years in the majors, deGrom has won the Rookie of the Year, has two All-Star game appearances and three times has finished in the top 10 in the CY Award voting, including a win in last year’s race.
In the second half of 2018, deGrom was masterful, as he put up a 1.73 ERA and a 0.833 WHIP. However, that wasn’t the best mark on the Mets. In the same time frame, Zack Wheeler put up a 1.68 ERA and a 0.813 WHIP. To be crystal clear, 11 games and 75 IP does not put Wheeler at deGrom’s level. Instead, this is merely a reminder that for an extended period in 2018, Wheeler was awesome.
You can break down Wheeler’s 2018 into four segments of nearly identical length of seven or eight starts.
First seven –– 5.92 ERA, 1.553 WHIP
Second seven – 3.92 ERA, 1.214 WHIP
Third seven — 2.17 ERA, 1.029 WHIP
Final eight — 1.96 ERA, 0.836 WHIP
One of the wonderful thing about deGrom’s 2018 was that he didn’t have any terrible outings. His worst start came in his third game of the year, when he allowed 4 ER in 6 IP. Contrast that with 2017, when deGrom had three starts where combined he allowed 21 ER in 11.2 IP for a 16.20 ERA. We see something similar with Wheeler in 2018. In three combined starts, he allowed 20 ER in 15.2 IP for an 11.49 ERA.
In 2017, despite those three dismal outings, deGrom had a 3.53 ERA and a 1.187 WHIP. Last year, Wheeler had a 3.31 ERA and a 1.124 WHIP. Because of the difference in run environments, it was a better year for deGrom, who had a 117 ERA+, compared to the 111 ERA+ Wheeler posted last year. Still, it’s another comparison to deGrom where Wheeler holds his own.
Two of those bad Wheeler outings came in the first seven games of the year while the third one came in the second batch. And that second batch also included a game where the bullpen provided no relief and one where a botched call by an umpire led to runs scoring. Most all pitchers have games like that. When they happened to Wheeler, they were in the second batch of games and helped obscure how well he was pitching. The conventional wisdom is that Wheeler finished the 2018 season strong but my take is that he pitched better for a longer stretch than that.
It’s good to have players who intelligent people can rationally disagree on their value. We’ve seen countless arguments about players like Bartolo Colon and Juan Lagares where opinion was divided. Wheeler is one of these guys, too. Some still see the guy who nibbled and ran high pitch counts and was borderline unwatchable. Others see the guy who gave the Mets a 2.86 ERA over his final 24 starts of the year and opine that he’s finally crossed the Rubicon.
Let’s see what the computer models forecast. There’s a new one this week on FanGraphs – Ariel Cohen’s ATC. I know of neither Cohen nor his projections but it’s nice to have another source to view.
ATC: 11-9, 170 IP, 3.73 ERA, 169 Ks, 58 BB, 19 HR
THE BAT: 11-10, 171 IP, 3.54 ERA, 166 Ks, 62 BB, 20 HR
Marcel: 9-8, 160 IP, 3.83 ERA, 156 Ks, 56 BB, 17 HR
Steamer: 10-10, 171 IP, 3.85 ERA, 172 Ks, 57 BB, 20 Ks
They all see a very similar guy. Perhaps the most interesting numbers here are the HR allowed. Last year Wheeler did an excellent job limiting the gopher ball, as he allowed just 14 HR in 182.1 IP, thanks to an 8.1 HR/FB rate. And he was even better as the season went on. From June 1 through the end of the year, he allowed 7 HR in 132.1 IP, due to a 5.4 HR/FB mark.
All of the models see Wheeler giving up more homers in fewer innings pitched than last year. For what it’s worth, Wheeler has had strong HR/FB rates in three of his four years in the majors, with the exception being 2017, when he allowed 9 HR in his final 23.2 IP when he was almost definitely pitching while injured.
Here is my biased forecast for Wheeler:
17-7, 205 IP, 2.70 ERA, 210 Ks, 57 BB, 15 HR
Last year Wheeler started in the minors and they shut him down early over workload concerns at the end of the season. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to predict that a healthy Wheeler will exceed last year’s innings total. Also my K/IP totals are right in line with what the computer models forecast. Where we mainly differ is with what Wheeler will allow in walks and homers. My HR allowed figure is definitely optimistic but my opinion is that my walk totals are more realistic than the computer models. The models cannot pick up on the fact that Wheeler is challenging hitters when he gets ahead in the count now, compared with trying to throw the perfect pitch – and mostly missing – earlier in his career.
Where you stand on this last point is probably highly indicative of where you stand on Wheeler in general. If you think he’s turned the corner, that he’s attacking guys more so now than ever before, you probably expect a big year. If you think he’s still a nibbler, your projections will be much more bearish.
You’ll have more credibility in the future if you chime in now with what you think Wheeler will do this year. Next week, Wilson Ramos goes under the forecast microscope.