Zack Wheeler’s Future Is Bright Again

The New York Mets are currently not a good baseball team. This isn’t news, and it can also be the source of occasional amusement. In the future envisioned by Futurama, the New New York Mets are the worst team in baseball’s successor, blernsball. But the humor provided by the Mets isn’t solely confined to the future; it provides comedy in the present as well. Upon Wednesday’s announcement of the 2019 MLB schedule, our own Dan Szymborski got in a dig at New York’s second-favorite team.

This current state of Mets-dom is unlikely to change anytime soon. That said, the Mets are actually having a decent August. At 12-11, with three series wins and one split in six series against admittedly weak competition, August represents a major improvement over the months of May through July (27-51 combined record).

The underlying numbers back up this August run. Most important of all is the fact that the Mets have put up the third-highest pitching WAR for the month, trailing only the Indians and Braves in that timespan. Their staff has been led by Jacob deGrom (1.7 WAR, best in MLB in August), Noah Syndergaard (0.8 WAR, 17th-best), and Zack Wheeler (1.0 WAR, eighth-best). While this level of performance isn’t out of the ordinary for deGrom or Syndergaard, Wheeler’s appearance alongside them is little surprising, at least relative to expectations. Prior to the season, the projection systems placed Wheeler at around 1.2 WAR, with all three of ZiPS, Steamer, and Depth Charts projecting him to be worth less than Jason Vargas.

That’s not to say that Wheeler’s talent level was expected to be worse than Vargas’s. It was just hard to know. After 2015 and 2016 seasons wiped out by Tommy John surgery and then a poor 2017, there was little sense of what to expect from the former top prospect. However, Wheeler has rebounded in 2018 to the tune of 3.3 WAR, 15th-best among pitchers in all of baseball. This turnaround has come at a beneficial time for the Mets, a club now looking to build for 2019 and beyond.

Wheeler has always been a sought-after quantity. He was a top-10 pick out of high school, a return (in trade) for a future Hall of Famer, and a top-10 prospect before his 2013 debut. A 2.6-WAR performance in his first full season at age 24 seemed to suggest a very bright future. However, after suffering a torn UCL during spring training of 2015, he was required to undergo Tommy John surgery. A rehab assignment in 2016 lasted only 10 days before he was shut down again. And while the 2017 campaign marked his return to the majors, he struggled again, recording a 5.03 FIP before injuries prevented him from making a major-league appearance after July.

The questions going into 2018 were obvious: would there be a spot in the Mets’ rotation for Wheeler, and if there were, would he be able to stay healthy enough to take advantage? Ultimately, the answer to both questions has been “yes.” Wheeler was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas to start the season, but he only stayed there for one start. The Mets recalled Wheeler on April 11th to start against the Marlins, and he has cruised ever since. His strikeout rate, at 24%, is 24th-best in baseball among qualified pitchers. His walk rate is at a career low of 7.7%. All of this has been crowned by his spectacular August, during which he has already stuck out 30 batters in 26 innings while only walking four and allowing 17 hits.

Wheeler’s return isn’t merely the case of a talented player moving past an injury. He has made improvements to his pitching repertoire and approach. To begin, he dropped his least successful pitch from his arsenal. In 2017, his sinker was thrown nearly a quarter of the time, with a value of -1.09 runs per 100 pitches. This would have placed in the bottom 10 sinkers in baseball had Wheeler thrown enough innings to qualify. This year, he ditched the pitch entirely and is leaning heavily on his four-seamer at a rate of 58.0%, sixth-highest among starters.

Second, Wheeler is throwing the majority of his pitches harder than he ever threw them before his surgery. His four-seamer, changeup, and slider have all experienced upticks in velocity, with the slider experiencing a drastic uptick of nearly 3 mph.

Zack Wheeler Velocity Increases
Pitch 2017 2018
Four-seam 95.5 96.5
Changeup 88.8 89.3
Slider 88.6 91.4

Third, Wheeler lowered his arm slot slightly, releasing the ball two inches lower and two inches more towards third base. This change is consistent across all his pitches for 2017 and 2018.

The alteration of his release point has altered the movement of Wheeler’s pitches, too. His four-seamer has more arm-side run (5.9 inches versus 4.6 inches) and less rise (9.2 inches versus 9.6 inches) than 2017, although the lack of rise is somewhat mitigated by the increased velocity. The slider especially looks different, with both more horizontal movement (1.2 inches versus 0.9 inches) and vertical movement (3.9 inches versus 2.5 inches) due to the combination of increased velocity and changed release point.

Finally, Wheeler added a splitter, essentially obtaining a second changeup with more arm-side run and a tick more velocity than his first. The pitch has been effective, too, generating swings nearly 60% of the time and balls in play on less than 35% of those swings.

Wheeler’s renaissance could not have come at a better time for the Mets. Expected to go through arbitration one last time this offseason, he will be a highly attractive trade piece for a contending team. While the Mets could have possibly gotten a better return for the right-hander a month ago, Wheeler possesses sufficient value to merit a return that could benefit the club going forward. None of this would have been possible, though, had Wheeler, seemingly a lost asset a year ago, not turned his career around. He has returned from baseball oblivion with a vigor this season, not by merely returning from injury, but by making necessary changes to his pitching arsenal to make his stuff more dynamic. He again has a bright future going forward, and some team will likely benefit next season.

Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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5 years ago

“some team” next season? Hopefully it’s still the Mets. The only thing worse for Mets’ fans than what’s happened since the fluke WS appearance, would be for Wheeler to continue to excel elsewhere. We’ve invested too much to turn back now.

5 years ago
Reply to  rsvp_nj

The Mets are really lacking in position player talent. If Wheeler, who only has one more year of control anyway, can acquire a young position player in a trade the Mets have to be interested

5 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

@fordhamflash if what you say is true, they would have considered moving him at the deadline, which they did not. The Mets are very much looking forward to a 82 win season next year and see Wheeler as big part of that.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
5 years ago
Reply to  rsvp_nj

Yeah, I really don’t know why this article presumes he’ll be traded. If the Mets are seeking to contend and not tear down/rebuild in 2019, which it seems like they are, keeping him probably makes more sense.