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.

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

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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.

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Just about a perfect two-strike slider. Welp

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

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

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

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Really good breaking ball.

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

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

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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.


28 Responses to “Zack Wheeler’s Catching and Zack Wheeler’s Pitching”

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  1. Bill says:

    Great piece.

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  2. attgig says:

    would’ve loved a chart with all your comparable 23 year old pitchers.

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  3. jdbolick says:

    If Wheeler’s walk rate was simply a matter of command then you would expect his Zone% to be poor, but it actually isn’t. He can throw strikes when he needs to, the problem is that he doesn’t want to throw strikes until he has to. Wheeler prefers getting hitters to chase out of the zone, which is why his 52.0% first strike percentage ranked third worst in the major leagues for any pitcher with at least 100 innings.

    The good news is that he can pretty easily remedy the problem by being more aggressive early in counts. The bad news is that it will reveal that he isn’t nearly the prospect many have been saying, as his results have been built on getting inferior (mostly minor league) hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. When it comes to “swing and miss” stuff, Zack Wheeler is pretty average.

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    • Sylvan says:

      I don’t see anything wrong with his stuff. It’s much harder to make hitters look silly when you’re always spotting them a favorable count. When he pounds the zone more, he’ll get more swings and misses, because hitters won’t be able to sit back and wait for their pitch.

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      • jdbolick says:

        There’s nothing “wrong” with his stuff, it’s just not great. If Wheeler is your third starting pitcher behind Harvey and Syndergaard, you’re doing pretty well.

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        • Za says:

          Stuff not great? You’re kidding, right? What are you comparing to, Randy Johnson?

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        • jdbolick says:

          No, and I’m comparing him to other major league starting pitchers and top pitching prospects. When he pitches within the strike zone, Zack Wheeler doesn’t miss bats at a well above average rate. Nor does he induce a high percentage of ground balls or a higher than normal percentage of infield-flies.

          There is a perception that Zack Wheeler has “great stuff” because that has been the narrative surrounding him for years. That perception doesn’t affect results, however. The actual performance is what matters.

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        • Sylvan says:

          It’s not impossible that you’re right — but if you’re going to make sweeping declarations about the quality of a rookie pitcher’s stuff based solely on a few plate discipline/batted ball columns….well, you shouldn’t expect to sway too many people.

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        • jdbolick says:

          Note that I’ve been saying this about Wheeler for more than year, so it isn’t just based on a small rookie sample. I’ve also been evaluating prospects for well over a decade, so I feel pretty comfortable in what I’m saying, although that doesn’t necessarily make me “right” in this case. I put the numbers out there, ignore or heed them as you see fit.

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        • dovif says:

          Zack Wheeler doesn’t miss bats at a well above average rate. Nor does he induce a high percentage of ground balls or a higher than normal percentage of infield-flies.

          SO you are saying he is not elite as a rookie? Neither was Kershaw and almost every star pitcher today

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        • jdbolick says:

          The things I’m talking about generally don’t improve with age. Command and control do, though.

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    • jpg says:

      His whiff rate on sliders was around 13% to all batters and his whiff rate on change ups to lefties was was 12.5%.He’s only 100 innings into his big league career so there’s room for growth. I watched every start of his after he was called up and his swing and miss stuff was definitely better than “pretty average”.

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  4. SabathiaWouldBeGoodAtTheEighthToo says:

    I wonder how much of this has to do with umpire bias against rookie pitchers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that rookies will not get the call vs. vets. Has that ever been studied on fangraphs (and sorry for no looking it up myself)? You have to figure a borderline pitch from Wheeler, taken by a Posey or even a Sandoval or Venable, is probably going to be called a ball.

    Do the zTkB and oTkS rates evolve greatly as a pitcher progresses through his 1st year to 2nd year to, say, 5th year?

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  5. Darren says:

    Although a few of those pitches could have been strikes a lot depends on the previous pitches before. As we all know when a pitcher is all over the place, which wheeler was a lot of the times last year, he will not get those close ones. If he was pounding the zone he def would have gotten those close ones called for him. More concerning is why his velocity dips by about 3 or 4 mph’s around the 3rd inning. He may be better off being turned into a closer, doesn’t seem like he can maintain velocity.

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    • SabathiaWouldBeGoodAtTheEighthToo says:

      At 23 he is likely to add strength and stamina, plus the wisdom of pacing himself and not throwing 100% all of the time. They have to give him every chance to succeed as a starter before considering stashing him in the pen.

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      • Darren says:

        I am sure he will be given every chance to succeed as a starter and I know he is young but my feeling is he will find real success as a closer

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        • Za says:

          Darren, how many closers do you know that throw 5 pitches and can throw 96 on their 100th pitch? Closers aren’t as valuable as #1s or #2 – not by a long shot. And the Mets have plenty of lesser pitching prospects to stick in the pen.

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      • Za says:

        There has never been talk of Wheeler going into the pen. He maintains velocity and has at least three Major League-caliber pitches. He’s got a plus 4-seam and a plus 2-seam, according to pitch values, and he’s throwing Major League sliders and curves, though they leave room for improvement. He also throws a change, which needs work and is probably a 4 pitch right now but could be a 5 (or even 6) when all is said and done.

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        • Darren says:

          According to pitch values? have you watched him? on occasion he breaks off a nice curve but has not shown the ability to throw it for a strike for that matter he has not shown ability to throw his fastball for a strike. His fastball on avg is 91-94 and he does not maintain velocity late in games. I am a Mets fan and I hope I am wrong about him but like most of their prospects he was overhyped and hopefully he can turn out to be a slightly better than avg. starter

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        • Sylvan says:

          Darren, Wheeler’s fastball averaged 94.4 MPH last year, and that’s including the beginnings, middles, and ends of his starts — 12th in MLB among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.

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        • dovif says:

          Darren

          For someone who claims to be a Mets fan, you know very very little about Wheeler.

          Considering he improved significantly while pitching to D’arnuad, and he was a good rookie last year I expect his floor to be a no 4 starter

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        • Darren says:

          Dovif, I know what I see and what I see is a pitcher who lacks command and lacks secondary pitches. There are a lot of young pitchers who came up last year who looked much better than wheeler. I like how we start blaming the catchers now for him being unable to throw a strike. Sounds like something Terry Collins would say

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        • Darren says:

          Sylvan, can you show me a stat where they have his fastball avg from 3rd inning on in games. I know it sounds weird but I watch every game and I will guarantee you he his fast avg from the 3rd inning on was not 94.5. My point is he can hit 95/96 in the first two innings but then it drops to 91/92, depending on how many he throws it can add up to an avg of 94 but my point is he doesn’t maintain velocity

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        • Sylvan says:

          If Wheeler’s total fastball average is still enough to be 12th best in all of baseball, then his late-inning fastball velocity can’t be low enough to be THAT big a problem.

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  6. Perhaps this is why the Giants tried to change his mechanics when he was in their system, so that he could be more consistent in the strike zone.

    Once the Mets got him, they let him go back to his old ways, where he had much better results with the Mets than the Giants.

    It will be interesting to see if he can pull it off and take that next step up per the improvement in catching. Now, per the comment above, could the improvement with D’Arnaud be due to less hazing by umpires with the young pitcher? I know, impossible to say for sure, but just a thought.

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    • Sylvan says:

      Even by the end of the year, Wheeler was still a brand new rookie. I doubt that umpires were giving him “veteran respect” already at that point.

      On the other hand, the gulf in framing skill between d’Arnaud and Buck is, I think, pretty well established (both in numbers and scouting terms) and holds true for the rest of the Mets pitching staff as well.

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  7. ror0071619 says:

    The Mets definitely have the occasional bit of good luck. It’s lucky that Colorado has a world-class education system especially when compared to NY, otherwise they wouldn’t have Wright.

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  8. Harold of the Rocks says:

    I say Tejeda, you say Tejada…

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