Zack Wheeler’s Catching and Zack Wheeler’s Pitching

Before Matt Harvey was hurt, he was virtually perfect. Before Matt Harvey was perfect, he was imperfect, just another talented young pitcher a bit rough around the edges. The emergence of Harvey took a few of the spotlights away from Zack Wheeler, but Harvey going down bumped Wheeler front and center. Wheeler, now, is the great hope for 2014, and should he be able to reach his lofty potential, then come 2015 one might observe one of the rarest of breeds, that being the optimistic Mets fan. Harvey’s an ace if he can come back healthy. Wheeler’s an ace if he can just polish his game. It’s exciting to root for a team with two aces.

But to be sure, Wheeler has more in common with the imperfect Harvey than with the perfect Harvey. The numbers suggest he’s still an adjustment or two away from becoming the pitcher prospect types have dreamed about. Wheeler always walked hitters in the minors, but the strikeouts were there to pick him up. He continued walking hitters upon reaching the majors, but the strikeouts were present in lesser numbers. What we can tell is that Wheeler needs to throw some more strikes. Another thing we can tell is that that statement deserves an asterisk.

There’s no question Wheeler needs to work on his command. He’s admitted as much on multiple occasions, and it’s all about mechanical consistency. Almost everything’s about mechanical consistency, and it’s a lot easier to talk about it than it is to achieve it, but Wheeler’s a work in progress. Most pitchers are. He’s young.

But as long as we’re going to talk about Zack Wheeler’s performance, we need to give some consideration to the context. His command could be better. His big-league receivers could’ve been better. Wheeler spent a lot of time throwing to John Buck and Anthony Recker before Travis d’Arnaud was promoted, and last year, Buck and Recker were two of the worst pitch-receivers in baseball.

According to Matthew Carruth’s data, Recker was worth 1.5 strikes below average per game with the Mets. Buck was worth 1.7 strikes below average per game with the Mets. Only a small number of catchers were worse, and that allowed d’Arnaud to look like a massive improvement even though he was right on the mean. For a sense of what this meant to Wheeler, consider the following table:

zTkB oTkS
Wheeler 20% 4.7%
Lg. Average 14% 7.1%

The numbers:

  • zTkB: rate of pitches in the zone called balls
  • oTkS: rate of pitches out of the zone called strikes

Wheeler lost some strikes in the zone, and he lost some strikes out of it. If you just plug in league-average numbers, then Wheeler would’ve gained about 35 strikes, lifting his strike rate roughly two percentage points. Now, the receiving got better upon d’Arnaud’s promotion. Throwing to Buck and Recker, Wheeler threw 60.4% strikes, and his expected strike total was 2.8 strikes below average per start. Throwing to d’Arnaud, Wheeler threw 62.5% strikes, and his expected strike total was 0.5 strikes below average per start. A better receiver made Zack Wheeler better, but damage had already been done. At least, that’s what’s suggested.

I got a little curious. When a pitcher isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt, oftentimes it’s because of the catcher. But other times it’s because of the pitcher, as a borderline strike is harder to frame if it’s thrown to the opposite edge from the intended target. Was Zack Wheeler just not getting calls, or was he not getting calls because he was missing spots by a lot? I decided to pull up and .gif Wheeler’s 10 called balls that were closest to the center of the strike zone. This evidence is just anecdotal, and it isn’t conclusive of anything, but it gave me some ideas. These .gifs are presented in no particular order.


That’s a missed spot, but also a terrible job of receiving. In fairness, the pitch was like 98 mph.


The strike zone’s smaller when a runner is on the move because the catcher is reacting as he’s making the catch. Wheeler pitched to an edge, but then it was out of his hands.


Just about a perfect two-strike slider. Welp


Nothing wrong with this location. Stabby action by the catcher.


Similar to above, although here Wheeler missed a little more in. He still caught the plate, according to PITCHf/x.


Location wasn’t pinpoint, but it was close. Catcher’s body does a weird little…. I don’t know — hop?


Really good breaking ball.


This was just a borderline call that didn’t go his way.


Whatever hope that had of being a strike, the catcher completely destroyed it by pulling the ball behind the opposite batter’s box.


Another borderline call that just didn’t go Wheeler’s way.

These .gifs don’t feature Zack Wheeler throwing all over the place. Granted, the process of finding these pitches was in part selective for pitches that weren’t all that wild, but it seems to me Wheeler could’ve had some better luck with his pitches on and around the edges. His strikes should improve just by getting to throw more to d’Arnaud. To whatever extent Wheeler was partially responsible for his own called strike zone, it would be hard for that situation to be worse in this coming season.

But that’s a lot of words about a small part of the story. Even after accounting for Wheeler’s receivers in 2013, it’s still pretty clear he could stand to make some command improvements. He could be reasonably effective as is, but with some steps forward the league could be Wheeler’s figurative oyster. In the majors, he threw just over 61% of his pitches for strikes. It was the same story in Triple-A. It was the same story in Triple-A the season before. Wheeler threw too many balls at the age of 23. How have pitchers like this progressed in the recent past?

I was asked recently if I thought Wheeler could go all Clayton Kershaw, since Kershaw also struggled with consistent strikes in the beginning. Kershaw’s a great example of a guy who just eliminated walks from his shrinking list of weaknesses, but when Kershaw was Wheeler’s age he walked 54 batters in 33 starts. Age has to count for something, and we might as well stick with 23. Let’s check out some recent 23-year-olds.

I identified starting pitchers who were 23 somewhere between 2002-2011. Then I started to narrow the pool. I set a walk-rate minimum of 9%. I set a strikeout-rate minimum of 16%, and a contact-rate minimum of 76%. The idea was to get a group of pitchers who had some command issues, but who demonstrated true strikeout ability. I was left looking at 25 names, from CC Sabathia to Casey Coleman.

In their age-23 seasons, the pitchers averaged 10.7% walks, 19.4% strikeouts, and 79.2% contact. Last season, Wheeler came in at 10.7%, 19.5% and 79.7%. On that basis, it looks like a good comparison pool.

I then looked at what those same pitchers did in the following two years, spanning 24 to 25 years old. As a group, unweighted, they averaged 8.9% walks, 19.8% strikeouts, and 79.3% contact. Ten of the 25 pitchers were worth at least 5 WAR during the two years. Five were worth at least 8 WAR.

Only Coleman was a minor contributor, in terms of innings. Joba Chamberlain moved to the bullpen. So did Marc Rzepczynski. Most of the pitchers stayed as starters, and a few more names would be Tim Lincecum, David Price and Jon Lester.

Only 12 of the 25 pitchers lifted their strikeout rates. However, 19 of them lowered their walk rates by at least one percentage point, and 15 lowered their walk rates by at least two percentage points. Six pitchers lowered their walk rates by more than three percentage points. Lester in particular took a massive step forward. Alex Cobb‘s is an interesting name, but then with him you have to consider the Jose Molina factor.

What I’m looking at is a list with a lot of talented names. Ubaldo Jimenez. Jaime Garcia. Justin Masterson. Edwin Jackson. But there’s also, say, Robinson Tejada. Oliver Perez. Scott Olsen. Andrew Miller. Some of the pitchers have become more effective by throwing more strikes. Some of the pitchers have been effective while still fighting command inconsistency. Some of the pitchers never quite made it. Of course, in general terms, this will be the conclusion of any such study.

With Wheeler, I’m pretty confident projecting an improvement in his walk rate. Even beyond having a different receiver, I mean. Most of the pitchers in the pool improved their walk rates, and pitchers have a tendency to improve in this area over time after debuting. In that regard, I expect Wheeler to take a step forward. What I don’t expect is a breakout season, as those are basically unprojectable. Wheeler ought to move toward being more good. I’m more skeptical that he’ll ever be great, but thankfully for the Mets, Matt Harvey still exists, and Wheeler could play a mean second fiddle. And if he manages to make the leap, like Harvey did, then don’t let anyone tell you the Mets never have good luck. They do have some good luck, in between all the bad.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Great piece.