New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler has endured quite a fascinating major league career.
Once a heralded top prospect, Wheeler was supposed to be part of the Mets’ young, dominant starting rotation that included Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Clearly, plans have changed in New York, mainly due to injuries that have led to poor performance from the franchise on the whole.
Wheeler is no exception to these injuries. After showing incredible promise at age-24 in 2014, when he put up a 3.54 ERA with 187 strikeouts in 185.1 innings, Wheeler’s career was derailed. He tore the UCL in his right elbow during Spring Training in 2015, resulting in Tommy John surgery. In his first rehab start recovering from the injury, over a year later in August 2016, Wheeler again was injured, this time with a flexor strain. He missed the rest of the season.
On April 7, 2017, Wheeler returned to the major leagues after a two year hiatus, but he was unable to escape injuries even then, missing time to two separate injuries: biceps tendinitis and a stress reaction in his arm. The promising young starter seen three years prior was a fading memory; Wheeler’s 5.21 ERA and poor strikeout-to-walk ratio suggested that he was not the same pitcher.
That has all changed, at least in the short-term.
Over the past month, spanning six starts, Wheeler has been the tenth-most valuable pitcher in baseball, with 1.0 fWAR. In this span, Wheeler has a 3.68 ERA alongside 34 strikeouts with just 11 walks over 36.2 innings pitched. These numbers are not eye-popping, but for a pitcher who missed two straight years due to injury, they are promising to say the least.
Perhaps more exciting are Wheeler’s velocity numbers. In June, Wheeler’s fastball has averaged 96.2 mph, his highest mark since it averaged 96.5 mph in August 2014. In Wheeler’s last start against the Diamondbacks, his fastball averaged 97.2 mph, a career high.
Wheeler’s curveball, too, has returned to be his go-to whiff pitch. In 2014, the last year Wheeler was truly healthy, the curveball — his third-most popular pitch — generated a swing and a miss 39.2 percent of the time, making it one of the best in baseball. The fact that this number dipped to 18.7 percent in 2017 was disconcerting. In 2018, Wheeler’s whiff percentage on his curveball is back up to 32.6 percent.
With his fastball and his curveball back, Wheeler has been a much more successful pitcher, and the results have shown — at least over the last month or so. He hasn’t been an overpoweringly dominant starter, but the telltale signs of a good pitcher are all there. If the numbers above aren’t enough, consider this: Wheeler has allowed a soft-contact rate of 24.2 percent in 2018, a near-four percentage point increase from his 2017 mark and the highest of his career. His soft-contact rate is the fourth-highest in baseball.
For the season, Wheeler’s numbers aren’t fantastic. He has a 4.82 ERA and a 72 to 28 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first 13 starts, spanning 74.2 innings pitched. His 3.80 FIP suggests that he’s been better than his ERA suggests, and his 3.74 DRA corroborates this. While he has not been a front-line starter, the underlying numbers indicate that he’s really been pitching like a number-two or a number-three starter, with the potential to be a number-one as he becomes more comfortable and further removed from all of his injuries.
Of course, a lot of this analysis has been based upon a half-season’s sample, but that is plenty to see that Wheeler has improved. It doesn’t mean, though, that his health will hold up. As we know, injuries can pop up at any time, but Wheeler does appear to be getting stronger as opposed to weaker and more injury-prone. With his past, we can never be certain that this is going to be the case ten, five or even three starts from now, but for the time being, Wheeler is pitching as well as he ever has at any point during his major league career.
What does this mean in further context for the rest of the season? The Mets have some options.
Some have begun to clamor for a trade, believing that Wheeler’s value is only rising (which is true) and the risk may be too high to hold him (which may also be true). A trade for Wheeler by a contending team would certainly be a risk, but he may be a prospect cost-effective option that could help bolster any starting rotation.
Wheeler is under team control through next season, so the Mets could hold him with the belief that his value is only going to rise, giving them a chance to deal him in the offseason or try to make another postseason push with a second look at what to do next July. A lot of it depends on whether the Mets plan to hold deGrom and Syndergaard at this deadline. If those guys go, then it’s clear that they aren’t going to contend in 2019, and Wheeler would make sense to be dealt, too.
In a season full of disappointment, the re-emergence of Zack Wheeler has been a bright spot for the New York Mets. Pitching as well as just about anyone else in the league, it might be time to declare Wheeler back on track in a career that has been seemingly derailed time and time again.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.