Zack Wheeler's Inconsistent 2014 Performance: Can He Be a Stud?
Drafted sixth overall in 2009, Zack Wheeler possesses all the tools necessary to become one of the Mets' top-of-the-rotation arms for years to come. But polishing these tools and living up to the hype of being the top pitching prospect in the Mets organization hasn’t been a walk in the park. The 24 year old has shown streaks of inconsistency this season which have become a bit worrisome, leaving us wondering if and when he will reach his elite potential.
In all fairness to Wheeler, let me help set the table with where some of these lofty expectations came from.
Mets’ injured ace, Matt Harvey, leaped into stardom last season by posting a dominating campaign which earned him his first All-Star appearance as the NL starting pitcher, and set a standard in New York that couldn't possibly be matched in 2014. With Harvey out for the season, all eyes prematurely fell on Wheeler to replicate the ace's ridiculous 2013 performance, despite Wheeler only having half of a big league season under his belt.
Wheeler is a 6’4” right-handed power pitcher who relies heavily on his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball (or sinker). His average fastball velocity clocks in as the sixth-fastest in the Majors at 94.5 mph for qualified starters. But his velocity has never been questioned, only his control.
To compliment his fastball, he mixes in a nice array of off-speed pitches (in order of usage: slider; curveball; change). But the overall quality of his junk is still largely unproven at the Major League level. Until he masters firm command of his fastball and can sharpen his slider to nicely accompany the heater, he’s going to remain a one-dimensional pitcher.
His reliance on his fastball, coupled with his inability to locate it, has led to deep pitch counts and early exits for Wheeler this season. Even when he has pitched well, he still finds himself exhausting too much energy in the process of recording outs.
He is averaging under 5.2 innings pitched and just north of 100 pitches per start this year – numbers that simply aren’t acceptable for a guy looking to head the Mets’ rotation. If he wants to become that guy, the Mets need him to pitch smarter and work deeper into games – Mets’ relievers are worst in the league in RAR at -6.0 and WAR at -0.6.
Wheeler’s latest outing happened to be the worst of his young career, as he was yanked after 3.2 innings and 86 pitches in a loss to the Giants. He gave up four runs on six hits in the contest, while striking out six and walking two.
However, his three starts prior to the debacle against the Giants yielded completely different results. In those outings, he went three for three in quality starts, recording 23 strikeouts in 19.2 innings pitched, while maintaining a 1.37 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP.
His season as a whole has been a roller coaster of performances. Through 13 starts this year, he’s 2-6 with a 4.19 ERA, a 1.40 WHIP and a 2.04 nERD (numberFire Efficiency Rating Derivative) score. For comparison, in his 17 starts during his rookie season, he went 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP and 1.02 nERD score.
Nonetheless, Wheeler’s peripheral and batted ball statistics for 2014 tell a completely different story than his record (which should be ignored anyway), ERA and WHIP tell – a story that should help explain the conflicting variance in nERD scores above, in relation to each season’s record, ERA and WHIP.
His 23.9% strikeout rate is up 4.4% from last season. His 9.9% walk rate is hovering just below last year’s numbers and still remains a slight concern. But his home run rate and home run to fly ball ratio are both down from last season in which he only allowed 10 home runs in 100 innings pitched. He’s producing 9.6% more ground balls this season, 6.2% less fly balls and 5.4% fewer line drives, which should equate to a better ERA, right?
Additionally, all of his ERA estimators give the same narrative. He has a 3.50 SIERA, a 3.31 FIP and a 3.39 xFIP.
It’s quite evident that he is actually pitching better this year than the results would indicate. So why haven't the results followed suit?
His .330 BABIP is up a substantial amount from last season’s .279 (his BABIP should centralize around the .300 mark by seasons end – including Wheeler, Mets’ 2014 starters have a combined .288 BABIP). We can attribute some of this to bad luck and some to the Mets poor infield defense. But the rest of the blame will fall squarely on the shoulders (or shoulder) of Mr. Wheeler.
He has found little to no success this year with runners in scoring position. Last season though, he was a strikeout artist in these situations and had no problems escaping trouble. Here are his 2013 and 2014 splits with runners in scoring position:
Hopefully, when opposing teams are threatening in the coming months, Wheeler can get back to his 2013 ways with the same good ol’ fashion high heat that was so effective for him last year.
What to Expect for the Remainder of Season
For now, Wheeler is strictly viewed as a match-ups play in both standard and daily leagues. He definitely should be inserted into lineups when he gets the ball at home, as well as during favorable matchups on the road. Here are his home and road splits for the 2014 season:
As you can see, Wheeler’s numbers in the confines of pitcher-friendly Citi Field prove to be much better than on the road. He is a perfect four for four in quality starts at home this year, making him a must start this weekend when the putrid Padres offense comes to town.
Despite all of the reasoning for optimism, I expect the up-and-down outings to continue for Wheeler until he fine-tunes his mechanics, develops better location of his pitches, and fully adjusts to the speed of the Majors. Our algorithms project a 3.94 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP and a -2.09 Fantasy Score for the remainder of the season – decent, but nothing to break the bank over.
Credit to our very own Nicholas Friar who delivered the same message back in January in his preseason piece on starting pitchers looking to avoid the sophomore slump.
Potential start-worthy match-ups between now and the All-Star break based on opposing teams’ home and away batting splits:
Home vs. Padres (A+)
Away vs. Marlins (C)
Home vs. A’s (B-)
Away vs. Braves (C+)
Home vs. Rangers (B)
Home vs. Marlins (A)