Thoughts on Zack Wheeler

Now property of the New York Mets. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

I just wanted to throw down some quick thoughts on the centerpiece of the Mets' haul for Carlos Beltran:

Obviously, the star of this trade will be Zack Wheeler, no matter who else the Mets get, and he's a tough pitcher to peg down. He doesn't fit easily into any of the usual molds most young pitchers do. At a glance, some might read the velocity reports (low-to-mid-90s fastball) and the subpar walk rates and think Wheeler's just another guy who's more of a thrower than a pitcher. I believe that's inaccurate: he has a surprising amount of pitching accumen for a young guy. The way he uses his breaking ball, for example, is quite interesting. It's possible to look at the breaking pitch and see a below average offering. He throws from a lower arm slot that's not very conducive to curves, and true to form, the pitch can be very slurvy. But where most pitchers either scrap the pitch and start over or resign themselves to a career in the bullpen, Wheeler's smart enough to turn it into a positive. He'll vary the velocity and break of the pitch by subtly (or even not so subtly) adjusting his arm speed and angle to create an appearance of having more than one breaking pitch. You could even argue that he does throw a spectrum of breaking pitches ranging from what is nearly a traditional curve to a traditional slider. On top of that, Wheeler's fastball also has a lot of life—specifically sink—giving him another potential avenue for getting hitters out. Thus far, he's shown reasonable ground ball rates (his 2011 numbers are somewhere around 50%), though those numbers fall short of classifying Wheeler as a ground ball pitcher in my mind.

Unfortunately, Wheeler doesn't really look like a pitchability guy either despite his natural pitching intelligence. He's improved his changeup, but it's still not average yet, and his arm angle suggests it might never be. His command ranges from below average to terrible, and the fact that he's had as much success in the California League as he has speaks more about the quality of hitters he's facing than his actual ability. He has a lot of difficulty hitting his spots, especially down in the zone. Right now a lot of batters are still chasing, but that may change once he starts facing more disciplined hitters. The good news is that he doesn't often elevate his pitches when he misses; he tends to either miss down or away. That will help him to continue to limit the home run, but if hitters do start to lay off, he'll find himself intentionally elevating instead.

I'm not really sure how I'd go about teaching him better command. Forcing him to be more consistent with his arm angle would help, but it might also impair the effectiveness of the breaking ball. Instead, I'd consider either shortening his stride a touch or continue streamlining his arm motion. In high school, Wheeler's delivery was decidedly whip-like, and he had a pronounced inverted W. He's still pronating his elbow too late, but he's shortened the back end of his motion considerably, which does help speed up his tempo. Further efforts may improve his command and prevent future shoulder injuries. Shortening a pitcher's stride is something I rarely suggest, but it does sometimes help aggressive pitchers from getting their bodies too far in front of their arms during delivery. Again, it might help. Otherwise, all you can do is trust in Wheeler to learn how to locate better.

All in all, Wheeler seems like an appropriate prospect to get in return for a rental like Beltran and one with substantial upside at that.

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