It’s no secret that the New York Mets have been a disaster this season. They came into the year with a lot of optimism, but just haven’t performed up to their standards. The Mets are built from their rotation outwards and while the two aces of the team are doing their part, the next three have been inconsistent. Zack Wheeler is starting to string together a couple of good outings, going seven innings in three of the six games in June. Wheeler was once regarded as a top prospect, but injuries have derailed his growth. In 2015 he tore his UCL in his elbow which resulted in Tommy John surgery. In 2016 he missed time with a strained flexor muscle, and last season had bicep tendonitis and a stress injury in his arm. Now finally pain-free he is trying to get back to the level he was pitching at before all the injuries. The overall numbers aren’t great, but finished June 0-2 with a 3.26 ERA with a 33/13 strikeouts to walk ratio in 38.2 innings. We’re going to be looking at his progression to see what it means going forward, but first let’s check out the season numbers to see the kind of pitcher he can be.
When Zack Wheeler burst onto the scene in 2013, he gave Mets fans a taste of what might be in store for them. His sophomore season was a success and he actually improved his strikeouts per 9 innings and walks per 9 innings. His ERA was very good and fans were excited that he could be their number three or four pitcher in the rotation. Unfortunately, the former sixth overall pick in 2009 hasn’t lived up to those expectations due to injury. With all the injuries that occurred it’s no wonder that his numbers in the following seasons weren’t good. As we look to this season’s unspectacular numbers, we should take into account that this is the first year he’s fully healthy since his sophomore season in 2014. Let’s see if his plate discipline is different from the other seasons.
There is some evidence that shows this season is better than the rest. Wheeler is getting ahead of batters by throwing the first pitch of the at-bat for a strike 63.2% of the time. Contact has decreased down to 77.7% and his swinging strike percentage has increased to 10.8%. He’s also getting more batters to swing at balls on the outside part of the plate at a career-best 32.6% rate. Overall, a lot of his numbers are around the same in years past and it’s hard to know if he is better this year. Let’s see if the batted ball profile is any different this year.
After a successful rookie season, his approach changed the following year. He was getting ground balls at a 54.0% rate, an increase from his 43.2%, and his fly balls were lower at 27.3%. Things looked promising, but fast forward to this year and he’s not near that rate. I don’t know if it’s because he just doesn’t have the feel for his pitches after all the injuries or if he’s attacking the hitters differently. He is inducing more soft contact this year than in years past at a 24.7% rate so that’s working in his favour. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been there until this past month.
It wouldn’t be right to ignore the first two months but maybe he is starting to get his rhythm back. His ERA in June was great and his FIP shows that he wasn’t lucky with how he was pitching this month. The biggest change is his increase in velocity from 95 MPH to 96 MPH. The bump of speed certainly helps validates he is healthy and maybe even getting stronger as the season goes along. Has one tick made that much of a difference? Let’s check out if he’s changed the usage and what batters are hitting against him.
Wheeler has made some changes to his pitch mix in June. He has decreased his changeup usage a lot, throwing it only 5.56% of the time while his splitter and slider are being thrown more. When looking at the second table we can see that the changeup was a very hittable pitch. Batters were hitting 0.333 in April and 0.286 in May against it. Players are hitting 0.231 against his slider and 0.222 against his splitter in June so it makes sense to stop throwing your bad pitches for better ones. So while we can’t say that one tick of velocity has made all the difference, he has also started mixing his pitches more and the results are a declining batting average against each month.
Zack Wheeler looks like he is getting stronger based off the velocity increase. The pitch selection has changed a bit in June as he is favouring better pitches and the results are better. Wheeler has been getting ahead of hitters in the count all season and is inducing more soft contact than ever before. His declining batting average against and FIP in June suggest he might be able to sustain a mid-three’s ERA. The overall numbers don’t look good, making this a great opportunity to buy if you need a starting pitcher. He’s finally healthy and might just turn out to be that third or fourth pitcher the Mets desperately need.