The clear area of strength for the New York Mets heading into the 2014 season was their starting pitching. They have solid starters at the major league level both young and old, and potential phenoms on the horizon. But for the Mets to have any chance to contend for a playoff spot this year, Zack Wheeler needs to take the next step.
The 23 year-old righty had a solid rookie season. He went 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA. His walk rate was somewhat high and his strikeout rate somewhat low, but he excelled in getting himself out of jams and certainly showed signs of brilliance. With 100 major league innings under his belt, it’s time for Wheeler to develop into the top-tier starter who the Mets, and the rest of the league, thinks he can be.
He’s gotten off to a rough start. Wheeler has allowed seven earned runs on 15 hits in 11 innings of work. On the positive side, he’s walked only two batters and struck out 12. He’s worked on being more aggressive in the strike zone, and it’s helped, although it does leave him vulnerable at times.
In his last start against the Atlanta Braves, he ran a 3-2 count on Jason Heyward. He challenged Heyward with fastballs and eventually grooved one, which Heyward knocked out of the park. Give the Braves’ leadoff man credit — it was a great at-bat. There’s a fine line between being too careful and not careful enough. Pitching to major league hitters is hard, to say the least.
Wheeler’s newfound aggressiveness may also expose another negative trend. His fastball velocity tends to drop as the game goes on. In his first two starts, he’s come out throwing his four seamer 96-97 mph. By the third or fourth inning, his velocity dips to 93-94. It’s still nothing to sneeze at, but Wheeler’s fastball seems to have little movement. And at 93-94, a poorly located straight fastball is fodder for an experienced major league hitter.
Comparing Wheeler to Matt Harvey, the ace of the staff who is sidelined following Tommy John surgery, may seem unfair, but Harvey could get away with a poorly placed fastball because of its movement. Wheeler can reach the heights Harvey did last year, but he’s going to have to do two things to do so.
First, he has to improve his fastball command. If he can graze the corners of the plate with consistency without missing the strike zone, he’ll stay off the fat part of the bat. Secondly, he needs to find his secondary stuff.
Wheeler has a curveball, slider and changeup. When he’s executing, his slider is fast and sharp. It’s a great weapon. His curve is a nice change of pace, and has a classic 12-6 shape. He uses his changeup the least, but has tried to incorporate it against left-handed batters. He has not yet been able to get all of these pitches going at once.
He doesn’t need them all necessarily; rarely do pitchers have the feel of all their offerings in one outing, but he needs at least one of them in every start, something that will keep batters from sitting on the fastball. If Wheeler can make these improvements, he can be the ace the Mets need him to be.