We’ve reached the point in the regular season where, moving forward, a lot of our posts will be focused on the playoff race and teams within the playoff race. This is simply a natural shift of attention that occurs as the season progresses. Everything throughout the regular season builds up to the playoff race and now we’re here, so everything that happens which directly affects the playoff race becomes all the more noteworthy.
That doesn’t mean much for the New York Mets. They’re playing without their best and most exciting player, are currently eight games below .500, just two games out of last place and all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, with a a 0.1% chance to make the wild card.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Looking beyond this season, the Mets have a lot to be excited about, thanks to some combination of Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese, Rafael Montero and Dillon Gee making up one of most promising young pitching staffs in baseball. Looking towards the rest of this season, there is less to be excited about, as neither Harvey or Syndergaard will pitch in the majors this year. But deGrom is still enjoying an unexpected breakout year and Wheeler is living up to the hype of being really, really good.
And there’s something else about Zack Wheeler that will make the rest of his starts this season a little more interesting.
He hasn’t allowed a hit in an 0-2 count all season.
The last time Zack Wheeler did allow a hit in an 0-2 count was September 11, 2013. That’s 158 innings. Tracking down inning streaks which roll over from year-to-year proves to be pretty tricky, so we can’t pinpoint what the exact record for this is. However, thanks to the help of the great Jeff Zimmerman, I was able to find the highest number of innings pitched in a season without an 0-2 hit allowed since the beginning of the PITCHf/x era in 2008. And Wheeler appears to be in uncharted territory.
Wheeler is up to 158 consecutive innings without allowing a hit in an 0-2 count. The only guy that’s even remotely close to matching Wheeler is Jake Peavy from 2009, when he went 102 innings. After that, you find mostly relievers who are all under 70 innings pitched.
Now, we can’t say for sure there wasn’t a starter who kept the streak alive for longer than Peavy’s 102 innings before allowing a hit, but given the wide gap between where Wheeler is now and where Peavy was then, it’s clear that Wheeler is doing something rare.
And really, nobody has even come close to breaking the streak. There haven’t been any crazy diving plays or foul balls that just missed the chalk. There have only been two times when this streak was in potential jeopardy – not that a single person in the stadium, or likely the entire world, had any idea.
Henderson Alvarez almost reached on July 11 when a hit a slow chopper down the third base line and Wheeler was initially indecisive about his throw:
Other than that, it’s been pretty much smooth sailing when Wheeler is working out of an 0-2 count. Clearly, the streak is more of a fun, quirky observation than it is a meaningful statement about Zack Wheeler. It’s not like he suddenly flips a switch and becomes the best pitcher in baseball when he gets into an 0-2 count. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to draw from this.
Wheeler, obviously, wasn’t this good in two-strike counts last year. He used to have a below-average strikeout rate, now he’s in the top 20. Batters were hitting .178 with a .262 slugging percentage with two strikes against Wheeler, now that’s down to .152/.215. When he’s gotten ahead of hitters 0-2 this year, he’s gone on to allow a baserunner just 14 times. That isn’t the very best mark in baseball, but it is among the best.
Last season, you saw a lot of this from Wheeler with two strikes:
And that’s good. When you’ve got a 97mph fastball that you can blow past hitters like Ryan Braun, you should use it. But it’s nice to have other weapons, too. When Wheeler was moving up through the system, the hype stemmed from his fastball and his curveball. He got by on the fastball last season, but it was mostly on his fastball alone. According to our PITCHf/x run values, his highly-praised curveball ranked in the bottom 10 of all starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. There was some concern he might be tipping his pitches. Whatever the case may be, Wheeler’s strike percentage with the pitch is up to 33% from 27% last year and his whiff percentage has gone from 10% to 15%.
Now, that curveball finds itself on the other side of the spectrum, grading out as a top-25 curveball, where it was supposed to be.
It’s hard not to see what the hype was about with that movement.
The other part of Wheeler’s scouting report, with regards to his repertoire, was concern about his changeup. When you’ve got a pitcher without a changeup, you’ve sometimes got a pitcher with a platoon split. Changeups are supposed to get opposite-handed hitters out. Instead, Wheeler has gone the unconventional route by letting his slider do the trick.
Wheeler has doubled the use of his slider against left-handed batters, from 6% to 12%. That’s good, because lefties have gotten exactly one hit off Wheeler’s slider this year. 14 of the 28 strikeouts Wheeler has generated with the slider have come against lefties. This isn’t the conventional way to use a slider, but it’s working for Wheeler.
Wheeler appears to have more confidence in his slider. He appears to have more confidence in his curve. Both for good reasons. You can see these changes reflected in his two-strike heatmaps:
But this isn’t just a change that Wheeler has made in two-strike counts. His overall heat maps show a very similar adjustment. He’s still got the fastball, but overall, Wheeler has just done a better job of keeping his pitches down. It shows in his groundball rate, which went from league average (43%) to a top-15 mark in the majors (53%). It shows in his home run rate, which went from league average (0.90/9 innings) to a top-25 mark in baseball (0.65/9). It shows in his FIP, which is down over a half a run from where it was last season. Wheeler, as promising, young pitchers are supposed to – but don’t always do – is getting better.
Zack Wheeler is running a pretty amazing and unique streak, having not allowed a hit in an 0-2 count for nearly 160 consecutive innings, but that’s not what’s important. The streak might not even last all season. And even if it does, it really won’t mean much more than being a fun trivia question some years down the road. The important thing is that there are tangible changes Wheeler has made which help make the streak make a little more sense. Mets fans have the rest of the season to anticipate Wheeler’s starts to see if the streak will stay alive. Then they have the rest of his career to see how good he can really be.
Update: Because nothing is sacred and everyone is out to get me, Wheeler of course allowed an 0-2 hit last night against the Braves, mere hours after I finished writing this post. I suppose I learned my lesson not to write about streaks that could be broken before what you wrote gets published. Damn you, Freddie Freeman.
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