Zack Wheeler and Solo Home Run Situations
The Mets are on the verge of having a dominant starting staff and Zack Wheeler is a key component. Armed with an upper-90’s fastball and knockout curveball, the 24-year old enters the 2015 season primed for a breakout. In nearly 300 innings and 49 starts at the big-league level, great strikeout and ground ball rates point to ace potential. However, command has always been Wheeler’s Achilles heel and pitchers who walk too many batters don’t become frontline starters. The Solo Home Run Situations series has tackled added stress resulting from pitch selection — Wheeler presents an opportunity to revisit the series to explore how walks affect the young right-hander’s prospects.
On many pitching staffs in baseball, a talent like Zack Wheeler is celebrated. The Mets, however, have constructed a pitching staff with a future Cy Young winner and reigning National League Rookie Of The Year. Jacob deGrom (whom we like), returning ace Matt Harvey and top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero join Wheeler and share the hype to some extent.
Since deGrom is the only other sure bet for the rotation at the start of the season, the Mets need Zack Wheeler to continue to build on positive trends. In 2014, the righty’s strikeout rate shot from 7.56 K/9 up to 9.08. Just as impressively, Wheeler’s ground ball rate improved from 43.2% in 2013 to 54.0%. With those stats, the 24-year old’s peripherals need more explaining.
The former top prospect carried a 3.49 xFIP and 3.54 SIERA in 2014 — nothing special The explanation? Command. With 3.84 BB/9, the 12th-worst rate among qualified starters in 2014, Wheeler’s 2014 was an improvement by .30 over 2013. Does poor control undercut Wheeler’s long-term potential?
Solo Home Run Situations provide a model to explore added stress for starting pitchers. Poor command contributes to extra base runners and higher pitch counts, which add both mental and physical stress, and likely increasing the probability of injury. For his career, Zack Wheeler has thrown 60.3% of his innings in Solo Home Run Situations (when the team is either one run ahead or behind, or tied). Here are the numbers by year:
2013: 100 IP overall, 61.2 IP +/- 1 run (61.7%)
2014: 185.1 IP overall, 110.1 IP +/- 1 run (59.5%)
Overall, the former top-100 prospect’s Solo Home Run rate sits below the cumulative average of the pitchers studied to date (62.8%). Is it possible the improvement in walk rate contributed to a smaller percentage of one-run innings? Definitely. Another factor is pitch counts. In 2013, the right-hander threw 1,683 pitches, good for 16.83 pitches/inning. In 2014, he threw 3,290 pitches, good for 17.75 pitches/inning. Wheeler threw more pitches per innings, but saw his walk rate and fielding-independent peripherals decrease.
Zack Wheeler, Solo Home Run Situations, and Pitcher Development
As pitchers mature, they understand the role of bad strikes and good balls. Bad strikes are thrown in pitchers’ counts, and often hit. Good balls lure batters to chase pitches they have worse odds of hitting well. For Wheeler, we can’t fully attribute an extra pitch per inning to a change in approach. However, despite throwing more pitches per inning, Wheeler clearly saw better results. Entering 2015, the 24-year old can work to drop his walk rate even further as three walks per nine innings is key to becoming a top flight starting pitcher.
In 2014, Wheeler threw a breaking pitch nearly 31% of the time — not an obscene rate on its own, but the pitch results are telling. The curveball was a ball 44.2% of the time, while the slider was a ball nearly 37%. (Command issues reveal themselves further: Wheeler’s change-up was a ball a whopping 48.7%!) In order to use the curve and slider more effectively, Wheeler has to prove he can locate them for strikes — otherwise batters will learn to lay off those pitches and sit on the fastball.
With great strikeout potential and the ability to induce high ground ball rates, Wheeler can become an ace with fewer walks. As Jacob deGrom proved, pitchability often create better results than stuff alone. Zack Wheeler is discussed as a future injury risk, but nothing in his Solo Home Run Situation profile speaks to this. Expect the Mets right-hander to remain healthy while working to improve command even further. If it happens, he’ll become an All-Star.
21 Nov 2014 / Ben Flajole /
Categories: MLB Analysis
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