Written by: Russell Shaffer
Getting Behind the Wheeler
Ron Vackar kicked the tires on Zack Wheeler earlier this week in his bounceback candidates article, however in the space to follow I’m going to take the 24-year-old Mets righty for a complete test drive before recommending you buy or pass for 2015.
Wheeler entered 2014 in the same category as Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, Danny Salazar, Yordano Ventura, Michael Wacha and Alex Wood – huge upside young starting pitchers with small big league stat lines who were rocketing up draft boards. Fantasy owners saw what Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey did in 2013 and they were clamoring to stake their claim to the next big thing.
That’s why Wheeler was going around ADP 187 in ESPN leagues despite entering 2014 with just 100 IP accounting for a 3.42 ERA, 7 W and 84 K. When it comes to finding fantasy value in starting pitchers, it’s all about recognizing potential and who might take that next big step forward.
And for Wheeler all of the signs were pointing toward a massive breakout in 2014. He compiled a 3.52 ERA and 129 K in 115 IP across the minors in 2011 and followed that up with a 3.26 mark and 148 K in 149 IP in 2012. His ERA swelled to 3.93 in 68.2 IP for Las Vegas in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in 2013 despite an impressive 73 K.
All that said fantasy owners targeting Wheeler last spring could confidently expect a guy who could give them an ERA in the 3.50 range with about a K per IP. In fact the only thing keeping Wheeler from being in the same draft tier as Pittsburgh’s Cole entering 2014 was his bloated WHIP and BB totals. In fact, Cole’s 3.22 ERA and 100 K in 117.1 IP in 2013 were near mirror images of Wheeler’s numbers. The separator was Cole’s 1.17 WHIP and 28 BB compared to Wheeler’s 1.36 and 46.
And that’s basically what accounted for Cole – and many of the other green SPs named above – coming off the board five or six rounds earlier than Wheeler a year ago.
Getting Blue Book Value
That’s why I personally believe Wheeler was among the best buys of last year’s new SP models. Wacha, Ventura and Cole lost a lot of time to injury while Salazar and Wood bounced between AAA and the majors. Gray was solid however his K rate fell off quite a bit from his impressive 2013 audition.
And that leaves Wheeler, who took the ball consistently every fifth day en route to 32 starts and 185.1 IP. That translated to 11 W, 187 K and a 3.54 ERA. His 1.33 WHIP is still a bit high, though it’s trending in the right direction.
The net-net is an end-of-year performance you’d take every time from your SP4 – which is exactly what you should’ve been drafting Wheeler to be. He certainly outperformed the likes of Masterson, CC Sabathia, Jake Peavy and Josh Beckett whom he was drafted nearby. The problem is many of the owners who took Wheeler on draft day didn’t reap the spoils for the entire season..
His 5-8 record, 3.90 ERA and 1.36 WHIP across 19 first-half starts found him on the waiver wire in many leagues by July. Savvy owners who scooped him up for the stretch run were treated to a 6-3 mark, 3.04 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 82 K in 77 IP after the All-Star break.
Fantasy Bottom Line
Wheeler’s tale of two halves underscores the fact he’s still a work in progress who just completed his first full season in the bigs and won’t turn 25 until two months into the season. That’s a scary thought when you consider how good he’s been so far..
His 9.1 K/9 rate a year ago was sixth best in the National League and he kept the gopher ball in check by surrendering just 14 HR. Another cause for optimism is that Wheeler has a lot of room for improvement at home. His ERA was a dismal 4.30 at the pitcher-friendly Citi Field while a sparkling 3.09 on the road and he had a bizarrely lopsided road-to-home workload of 20 starts to 12. Even with the fences coming in this year, Wheeler should be able to cash in on improved stats at Citi in 2015..
I believe we’ve already seen Wheeler’s floor and it’s a pretty nifty floor – a solid SP4 floor. His ceiling remains to be seen, however I wouldn’t be shocked if he stepped forward to 200+ IP and K to pair with a 3.20 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 13 W. The return of Harvey should help ease some pressure as should a full year of Jacob deGrom in the rotation. Interesting that Wheeler’s fortunes turned about the time deGrom settled in…
I’m targeting Wheeler around the 13th round as a solid SP3. By that point many of the elite strikeout pitchers are off the board and you’re looking at ERA stabilizers like Doug Fister, Kyle Lohse and Jered Weaver. At that point I’d much rather take a guy with 200 K upside.
And that’s why I’m rolling with Wheeler.