This article could be a waste of time. If you’re convinced that Zack Wheeler won’t see close to 180 frames in 2019, then he’s just not a good investment.
I understand that possibility. Wheeler missed the entirety of 2015 and 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery, enduring multiple setbacks before finally returning for just 86.1 innings in 2017. Last year, he increased his workload by 125%, tossing 187.1 frames across the majors and a single Triple-A start . That’s a major workload jump for an arm turning 29 years old at the end of May and should bring concern for 2019.
But what if Wheeler hits the 180-inning mark again? This is a fun question that I haven’t seen answered yet this offseason because I think it’s an answer people don’t want to have. It’s a waste of time. We know he’s good, but he’s not elite. Wheeler is currently labeled as the 29th-ranked starter in the ECR and the 26th starter off the board in the NFBC.
I think Wheeler can be elite because Wheeler was elite. Here are Wheeler’s numbers through his final 17 starts of 2018:
Wheeler had at least six frames in all but two of his starts after June 15, and seven frames in all but five. In an age where pitchers struggle to make it a full six frames (*cough* Jack Flaherty *cough*), Wheeler’s long leash and ability to go deep cannot be understated.
I’m not here to tell you that Wheeler was better than you remember. I’m here to show you how he performed well and why it should stick around for another season.
Instead of breaking down Wheeler’s repertoire pitch-by-pitch to do so, I think he’s best represented as the culmination of all his pitches. Yes, his fastball is fantastic, but it’s the variety of his secondary stuff that takes a great pitch and turns into a great repertoire.
So why not watch a game with me? Let’s head to August 10, 2018, as we were given Miami’s excellent camera angle to watch Wheeler fan eight batters in seven innings.
Wheeler’s foundation is a four-seamer, and it’s a wonderful bedrock to build a strong repertoire. Its 96 mph velocity paired with constant elevation ranked it as the fifth-best fastball in the majors last season by pVal, slotted right behind his teammate Jacob deGrom. It shouldn’t surprise constant readers of Pitcher List that I strongly endorse elevated heat, but even more so going up-and-in constantly with fastballs to induce poor contact and set up off-speed pitches elsewhere.
On the first batter of the game, Wheeler executed his fastball perfectly, jamming Magneuris Sierra for a quick first out:
There it is. Ninety-five + at the upper corner of the strike zone to generate a weak groundout just two pitches in. Pitching is easy.
Speaking of easy, look at Wheeler’s mechanics—specifically how in-control they are. Wheeler doesn’t fall off toward first base, but instead goes north to south with a seemingly effortless motion. This isn’t your “all or nothing” motion where one puts strain on his entire body with every pitch. This is a collected and easily repeated motion that dictates good command.
In other words, I like Wheeler’s mechanics, and they speak to consistent control.
Back to the game. Brian Anderson followed Sierra and was part of the reason I wanted to showcase this game specifically. Here is one GIF of the entire at-bat:
Wheeler did so many things correctly here. It took him five pitches—not three—to fan Anderson, but each pitch came with a purpose. His first-pitch ball allowed him to get a whiff on a perfect second-pitch slider that started on the plate before falling off. Anderson thought this was a mistake heater, and he was wrong. Then after missing again too far inside, Wheeler keeps Anderson on his toes by spotting the same pitch away, painting the corner at 97 mph.
This isn’t fair.
Just with fastballs and a slider, Anderson doesn’t know what’s coming. High heat? Another slider away? Maybe he’ll jam me up-and-in again?
No, Wheeler instead serves him a splitter—a pitch that looks like a missed fastball but comes in six mph slower and dives out of the zone at the last minute.
Wheeler struggles a little with J.T. Realmuto, getting into a 3-1 count as he missed with a few heaters and a slider. However, he kept his cool and executed a gorgeous slider to earn a full count:
And as Realmuto thinks about the splitter just served to Anderson or maybe another slider or heater, he gets this:
That’s a poorly executed curveball, and Realmuto still swung at it. Wheeler’s heavy hook’s bite mixed with a 15 mph drop from his heater and holding the pitch back all inning will make batters chase this poor of a pitch.
There’s a brief taste of what Wheeler can do. Attack with heaters and sliders to go deep or get quick outs, and to keep batters guessing with two strikes. Let’s move to the second inning.
Wheeler is served his second left-hander of the game in Derek Dietrich, and as most do in lefty-righty splits, Wheeler used his splitter (think split-changeup) more frequently after a first-pitch strike via a high fastball.
After Wheeler threw his 0-2 splitter too far into the dirt, Dietrich was sent back to the dugout with this pitch:
That’s a beautiful pitch. Dietrich believes it’s high heat that will land out of the zone and then starts his swing too late when realizing its break will take it back into the zone. There’s simply no room for Dietrich to make contact.
Now for the final two outs of the inning:
Look at that: 96 mph heat jamming a pair of batters right along the inside corner for two cans of corn to right field. I can’t give Wheeler too much credit for the first one—he missed on the wrong side of the plate—though it still showcases what happens when Wheeler locates up and in.
Six up, six down, as Wheeler is cruising with fastballs in, sliders away and a curveball/splitter under the zone for punchouts. There’s one model of success for Wheeler.
I love this at-bat. It’s short and sweet, reinforcing a quality that is far too uncommon these days. Watch these two fastballs from Wheeler for a quick pop-out:
Wheeler started with a fastball on the outside corner (paint), then came inside on the very next pitch to catch a leaning Rafael Ortega to jam him and give Todd Frazier an easy catch. I emphasize changing eye level as a more consistent tool for success, though pitchers who can go in and out with their fastball during the same at-bat are few and far between. When it’s executed correctly, it generates plenty of quick outs like the one above.
Thing is, that’s a bad pitch from Wheeler. He had yanked a slider on the previous pitch and followed it with a terrible fastball that deserved to get smacked. This is an unbiased review of Wheeler—this deserved to be a hit regardless of the error. The man ain’t perfect—fantastic, but not perfect.
After Jose Urena successfully bunted Rojas over, it’s two outs and back to Sierra. In his first at-bat, Wheeler served him a pair of high-and-tight heaters to generate an easy out. Now facing Wheeler a second time, Rojas was fed this to start his at-bat:
Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Wheeler struggled to put Sierra away, though, failing to execute any of his sliders, curveballs or splitters to get Sierra to fully commit to the pitch. In the end, it was another excellent heater that got the final out:
It’s more of the same model we’ve already seen from Wheeler, and that’s excellent. His fastball is phenomenal with room to grow with his secondary stuff, yet his secondary stuff is strong enough to allow his heater to cruise. Note: I can’t help but mention that this is an incredibly weak lineup, though Wheeler’s execution thus far would succeed any evening.
After just 40 pitches through three, Anderson wisely forced Wheeler to pound the zone, swinging at the sole pitch inside the strike zone in five pitches—a curveball dribbled foul. Wheeler nibbled a bit too much here, and Anderson earned himself a walk.
With a man on first, Wheeler bore down and executed two fantastic fastballs:
What followed were three excellent pitches from Wheeler. A splitter just under the zone that Realmuto laid off, a slider under the outside corner fouled away and a running two-seamer in on the hands that Realmuto fought off foul. It earned Realmuto another 1-2 pitch, and Wheeler succeeded again:
It’s not the best splitter, but it’s located right at the bottom of the zone, which forced Realmuto to hack and create a lazy flyout. Excellent at-bat from Wheeler here.
Next up is Derek Dietrich, who Wheeler mostly fed splitters and fastballs last time up. So of course, Wheeler dips into his repertoire and serves him this filth:
It starts inside the strike zone looking like a heater Dietrich can pull into the right field corner before disappearing in a heartbeat at 90 mph. Flat-out nasty.
Wheeler gets to 2-2, and the final two pitches are remarkable. First Wheeler tries to replicate the slider than fanned Dietrich in the second frame, followed by a curveball out of the same tunnel and shocks Dietrich as it falls into the zone:
Dietrich saw everything in this at-bat, as Wheeler worked him the way he wanted to. This final pitch was actually the second offering that wasn’t placed well—a heater down the middle went foul at 1-1—but with his variety of weapons, Wheeler got away with it and made Dietrich look silly.
With two outs, Wheeler attacked Castro and got the same result as in the second by spotting his fastball in on his hands…once again:
The Marlins have yet to drive a Wheeler pitch, and for good reason. Wheeler is mixing all his pitches without hesitation, shifting their locations constantly while effectively pounding fastballs inside. His flexibility cannot be overstated.
I’m in love with this at-bat to start the fifth, even if the result wasn’t what Wheeler deserved. He got a quick 1-2 count by sitting away with painted heat and a tempting slider off the plate:
Then he came back inside with another excellent heater for a weakly fouled strike two:
This is so lovely. Sorry to gush, but it’s perfect. Wheeler has Prado cautiously looking away after painting heat then toying with a slider right after. Prado is leaning away, focused on not chasing another like-slider until he sees a fastball barreling into him along the inside corner. He’s late—of course he’s late—and Wheeler gets to a two-strike count. He earned it.
Now it’s time to put Prado away, and Wheeler turns to his splitter, a pitch that generated whiffs at a 15% clip in 2018. He wants this pitch below the strike zone, and a committed Prado gets just enough of the pitch hovering at the knees to get the first Marlins hit of the day:
Yes this pitch should have been slightly better, or at least missing too far into the dirt instead of nipping the zone, but Prado earned this single despite making somewhat soft contact off the bat.
Wheeler gets a quick out with a decent—not great—heater to Ortega that’s turned into a forceout at second. Rojas follows, and after two heaters into the hands, he still managed to get jammed even when Wheeler missed over the middle of the plate. Don’t forget, Wheeler is tossing 96 mph. He masks mistakes very well.
The pitcher, Urena, is up with two outs, and Wheeler gives him no mercy, firing two well-spotted sliders, resulting in an infield pop-up and five innings in the books. Save for the Anderson walk, Wheeler has yet to fall apart inside a single at-bat. He has a few mistakes here and there, but it’s consistent quality after consistent quality.
We’re back at the top of the order, and guess what: Sierra is up, and he grounds out on an inside fastball:
It’s not as elevated as before, but it’s far from a mistake. Wheeler is pumping cheddar, and the Marlins are struggling.
Anderson gave the Marlins the best at-bat thus far and battled again with Wheeler in the sixth. This time, I want to show you two curveballs prior to the 3-2 count:
I’ve been showing a lot of fastballs and sliders here. That’s because neither Wheeler’s deuce nor his splitter have been all that special thus far. Wheeler had two curveballs work—one to Realmuto and one to Dietrich—but both were far from their intended locations, and these two here to Anderson were more of the same. They were either overthrown or slipped out of his hand.
Think about that. Wheeler is cruising through the Marlins lineup mostly with the command of his heater. Yes, his slider is giving batters something to fear, while his splitter and curveball are keeping batters honest, but those pitches are not elite. It’s his fastball that has set the tone for every single at-bat.
Back to Anderson. It’s a 3-2 count now, and Wheeler has failed to throw a solid curveball twice in his last five pitches. It’s the ninth pitch now, and it’s time for one more try at that hook:
That’s a pretty curveball. It landed right under the zone, acting as a strike for 95% of the pitch’s journey to the plate. Anderson has no choice but to tip his cap on his way back to the dugout.
Now Wheeler is feeling the deuce. He just threw his best one of the game and starts Realmuto with another for strike one:
“This is easy,” said Wheeler. “I can just throw this pitch all da—“
It wasn’t a terrible curveball—it ended down in the zone—but Wheeler got cute. Just pump the heater inside after tossing 79 mph in the previous pitch!
Wheeler is about the throw his 85th pitch, and it’s a big one. If Wheeler doesn’t escape this Dietrich at-bat, there’s a chance he’ll be too close to 100 pitches to come out for another frame, despite his uninterrupted dominance thus far.
After a 97 mph heater misses, Wheeler dissects Dietrich with three excellent pitches: splitter, slider, and fastball:
Do you appreciate this? I hope you do, and you really should. Wheeler finally executes his splitter to a lefty and earns strike one. Then he spots a 90 mph slider just off the plate to get to two strikes. With Dietrich now concerned about a secondary pitch, he’s a bit too late on a well-placed heater high-and-tight, forcing him to sky one for the final out.
Wheeler makes it look easy. This is not easy. His secondary stuff isn’t as electric as Mike Clevinger‘s or Walker Buehler‘s, but the way he works the zone and commands his repertoire is akin to Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer.
Wheeler has earned himself one last frame on the bump, and even though he struck out Starlin Castro on a curveball in the dirt, I was impressed more with this 1-1 pitch:
In a 1-1 count, Castro is thinking fastball inside, allowing Wheeler to take full advantage with this splitter. It’s a hard pitch to execute correctly, and Wheeler was rewarded with a big whiff.
I’m really trying not to GIF up everything from this game, but Wheeler just keeps on giving. After he earned a 1-1 count with a solid inside fastball, here were Wheeler’s next two pitches to Prado—a curveball that falls into the zone and painted 96 mph on the outside corner:
Already with two outs and nearing 100 pitches, Wheeler looks ready to end this outing. A fastball away for strike one was followed by a splitter down-and-away, landing just under the zone, but Ortega poked it to the outfield.
No problem, just get the next guy and we—
Wheeler made few mistakes in this game. This was one of them; it wasn’t the most egregious, but not far enough inside to induce the last out he needed. It’s frustrating, to say the least, but it’s going to happen.
The final batter of his evening was J.T. Riddle, who fanned on an inside slider after four pitches. Standard affair from a man who cruised through his first 100 pitches.
I understand the hesitation to buy into Wheeler. His secondary stuff has its moments, and you won’t find a pitch with a 20%+ swinging-strike rate—or even a 15% mark for that matter. His injury history suggests it may be tough to expect 180 innings. I personally see Wheeler tossing at least 180 frames in 2019, and that alone forces me to put him Top 20. His fastball command is phenomenal with a variety of secondary pitches that can each carry the burden on a given night to dance with his heater. Whether it’s sliders off the plate glove side, splitters under the zone, or curveballs in the dirt, Wheeler has plenty of options to carry him deeper into innings and keep strikeouts flowing.
(Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire)