Tempering Expectations for Atlanta’s Matt Wisler

Matt Wisler’s big-league debut went about as well as anyone could have expected. The 22-year-old tossed eight innings of one-run ball two Fridays. His performance was good enough to outduel Jacob deGrom, as he led the Braves to a 2-1 victory over the Mets. His second start didn’t go as swimmingly, however: the Nationals tattooed him for six runs in four innings of work. He didn’t strike out a single one of the 21 batters he faced.

Wisler’s primarily a fastball-slider guy, and both pitches have the potential to be plus, according to Kiley McDaniel. His fastball was clocked as fast as 95 mph in his big-league debut, but it’s averaged closer to 92 overall thus far. Both of Wisler’s strikeouts — yes, he’s only had two — came by way of his low-80s slider. The first victim was Curtis Granderson.

Wisler1

And the other was Lucas Duda.

Wisler2

That backdoor slider to retire Duda was Wisler’s 88th, and final, pitch of the night.

Wisler joined the Braves organization in the Craig Kimbrel trade on the eve of this year’s opening day. Prior to the trade, Kiley ranked Wisler as the 41st-best prospect in baseball. Among Padres prospects, he ranked second, behind Hunter Renfroe.

Wisler’s been on the prospect radar for a few years now. A seventh-round pick out of high school in 2011, he wasn’t overly hyped at the time of the draft. He immediately started turning heads, though, when he posted a 2.53 ERA and 2.36 FIP as a 19-year-old in full-season ball. Not bad for a guy fresh out of high school.

He followed up his excellent debut with an equally strong 2013 campaign. Split between High-A and Double-A (but mostly Double-A), he struck out an encouraging 24% of opposing batters, while walking just 7%. Once again, both his FIP and his ERA started with a “2”.

Although he cruised through the low minors, Wisler hit a bit of a speed bump last year when he arrived in Triple-A. After six dominant starts in Double-A, the Padres promoted him to the minors’ highest level in May; and for the first time in his young baseball career, Wisler struggled.

Wisler struck out 25% of the batters he faced in A-Ball and Double-A, but saw his strikeout rate drop below 20% at the Triple-A level. His home runs also took a turn for the worse. He allowed 19 dingers in just 117 Triple-A innings last year, after allowing just 12 in his prior 299 frames. Some of this was due to his elevated 18% home-run per outfield fly-ball rate (HR/FB%), which was well above his career average of 8%. Some of it also had to do with pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. But even even after accounting for these caveats, allowing that many dingers is never a good thing.

Overall, Wisler’s 2014 numbers left a lot to be desired. His 5.01 ERA and 5.14 FIP were both in the bottom quartile among starters in the PCL. However, he seemed to get his act together late in the year. Over the season’s final eight starts, he turned in a 3.38 ERA and a 4.01 FIP.

These late-season improvements seemed to carry over into 2015. In 65 innings over 12 minor-league starts, his walk rate ticked down to 5%. And most importantly, he did a much better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. All told, he wound up with a much better 4.29 ERA and 3.24 FIP. It’s also worth noting, I think, that numbers are inclusive of his final minor-league start, in which he got shellacked for seven runs over 3.2 innings. Prior to that start, his ERA sat at 3.52.

Wisler’s Triple-A numbers from this season look pretty solid. Only nine of 42 qualified starters have posted a lower FIP in the International League, and only one of them — Zach Davies — is younger than Wisler. However, the entirety of Wisler’s success this year has come without much help from the strikeout. His 18% strikeout rate was a hair below the International League average.

For this reason, KATOH is tempering its expectations for the 22-year-old. It forecasts him for a respectable 4.8 WAR through age-28, which would have made him the 69th-best prospect heading into the year. That’s certainly good, but it feels a little light for a consensus top-100 prospect who’s posted one of the lowest FIPs in Triple-A.

Let’s see what the comps say. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis distance between Wisler’s Triple-A performance and every Triple-A season since 1991 in which a pitcher faced at least 350 batters. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Wisler’s, ranked from most to least similar.

Rank Mah Distance Name IP thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 0.07 Chris Tillman* 752 6.0
2 0.12 Ricky Bones 1,040 3.8
3 0.25 Dicky Gonzalez 66 0.9
4 0.39 Beiker Graterol 4 0.0
5 0.46 Zach McAllister* 401 5.3
6 0.48 Andrew Lorraine 163 0.9
7 0.57 LaTroy Hawkins 660 4.0
8 0.57 Glendon Rusch 1,033 14.3
9 0.58 Mike Wood 344 0.0
10 0.59 Ryan Franklin 89 0.0
11 0.62 Rick Bauer 240 0.4
12 0.64 Chad Gaudin 670 3.3
13 0.65 John Snyder 342 2.3
14 0.66 Brian Sikorski 37 0.0
15 0.69 Mark Kiefer 79 0.0
16 0.70 Kevin Lomon 16 0.1
17 0.78 Edgar Gonzalez 325 0.2
18 0.79 Adam Pettyjohn 65 0.3
19 0.81 Heath Phillips 7 0.0
20 0.81 Aaron Laffey 487 2.1

*Pitchers who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

That’s not an overly impressive crop of names. Chris Tillman, Wisler’s top comp, has put together a decent career, but hasn’t quite lived up to his encouraging numbers from the high minors. Beyond Tillman, we see what amounts to a bunch of back-end starters and relievers. The comps seem to agree with KATOH on Wisler: he’ll probably carve out some type of big-league career, but given his low-strikeout profile, he’s unlikely to make a significant impact.

Through two major-league starts, Wisler now holds a 4% strikeout rate. It goes without saying that this isn’t good. It also goes without saying that his strikeout rate won’t remain in the single digits for much longer. But while Wisler’s strikeout rate will rebound, it’s not clear if it will rebound enough to even make him a mid-rotation starter.

Wisler dominated Triple-A as a 22-year-old, which automatically makes him interesting. That he did it with quality stuff makes him even more interesting. Wisler’s an interesting arm who has more than earned a shot in the big leagues. But unless he finds a way to miss a few more bats, he probably won’t give the Braves more than a half-dozen or so WAR over the next few years.

We hoped you liked reading Tempering Expectations for Atlanta’s Matt Wisler by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Avi
Guest
Avi

If forced, would he be classified as a location/finesse pitcher over being called a power pitcher?

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

He seems to be right in between the two categories to me.