FanPost

Walkin' Wheeler: Will What Happens in Vegas Stay in Vegas?

There's a line of thinking that Zack Wheeler might be better served by skipping AAA because the park effect of pitching in Vegas could destroy his psyche or mechanics or something from which he won't be able to recover.

I'm a believer that just about anything is possible but that it makes sense to have some sort of evidence before entertaining a notion quite so radical. Let's actually look at Wheeler's 2012 starts.

Date

OPP

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

SO

AVG

Apr 04

@SAC

3.1

3

2

2

0

3

3

.231

Apr 09

@FRE

5.1

8

4

1

0

3

6

.364

Apr 14

COL

5.1

6

3

3

1

0

8

.273

Apr 19

SAC

4.1

3

4

4

0

6

4

.214

Apr 25

TAC

5.0

6

5

5

2

3

7

.286

Totals

23.1

26

18

15

3

15

28

.283

To me the most important number in that table is actually the symbol @ which in this context represents an AWAY game. Since we're trying to isolate a "Vegas Effect" we should note that Wheeler didn't throw a single competitive pitch in Vegas until his third start. Hopefully we can agree his first two starts could not possibly have been impacted by the Vegas park factor. He hadn't pitched there yet.

Since the issue the Mets brass are supposedly most concerned about is control/command, let's examine his bb:9ip rate. Let's also note that his first outing was in Sacramento whose 0.745 park factor makes it the 2nd most pitcher friendly park in the PCL. And Fresno, the location of his 2nd start has a park factor of .933 - the 7th most pitcher friendly of 18 PCL parks. In those two outings Wheeler issued 6 walks in 8.2ip or 6.2 per 9ip.

Then came 3 starts in the big bad Vegas ballpark. There he issued 9 walks in 14.2ip or 5.5 walks/9ip. Huh? Yep. He's shown better control in Vegas than in the two pitcher friendlier parks and his only walk-free outing came in Vegas.

Has to be an outlier right? Nope. He's given up 11.4 hits on the road vs. 9.2 hits at home. That's over 2 fewer hits in a much, much tougher park. He's struck out 9.4/9ip on the road vs. 11.7 at home. He's allowed fewer walks, fewer hits and struck out more guys/9ip in Vegas than away from Vegas.

Additionally, rest of the 51's pitching staff has tossed 162.2 innings so far and as a staff they have averaged 3.98 walks per 9ip. That's nearly two fewer walks per nine innings pitched than Wheeler's average of 5.84. And of course, Wheeler is supposed to be a much better pitcher than anyone else on the staff.

Hopefully this can put to rest the idea that "his curveball not breaking means he's getting rocked which means he's turned into a nibbler who's going to walk a ton because of the thin air." And if you want to call "small sample size b.s." fine - I can't argue. But then you can't make any argument about Wheeler and Vegas at all.

Not convinced? Well then, find a comfortable seat ‘cause this is gonna take a while. Let's look at last year's Las Vegas rotation to see if they can help tease out some sort of correlation between calling Sin City home base and walk rates.

Example 1: Sean O'Sullivan

Originally an Angel farmhand Sean O'Sullivan was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft. He failed to sign, spent a year at JuCo and then inked with the club as a "draft and follow" prior to the 2006 draft.

Heading into 2008 John Sickels ranked him as the Angels #5 prospect with a B grade. O'Sullivan made his major league debut at the tender age of 21 and split time between the bigs and AAA in 2009, 2010 & 2011 before spending all of last season in AAA where he is now pitching.

Now over a season removed from his last big league appearance, O'Sullivan looks like one of those guys who may have paid a price for being rushed to the bigs too soon. In the bigs he had 43 appearances 34 of which were starts. I'm not sure he's quite the same pedigree as Wheeler (though I didn't look very hard) but anyone who makes a big league debut as a 21 year old is someone a club ought to have high hopes for.

O'Sullivan gives us the benefit of looking at how one player performed with 3 different home parks in the PCL. He spent 2009 & 2010 in the very hitter friendly Salt Lake home park. The slightly below average run environment of Omaha served as his home base for 2011 and the beginning of 2012 when he moved to "Vegas baby!" for nearly 90 innings over 19 starts. Here are some relevant stats, aggregated by home park, for his PCL tenure:

Year

Team

Pk Fctr

ip

bb

k

bb/9ip

k:bb

09/10

Salt Lake

1.145

154

51

106

3.0

2.0

2012

Vegas

1.189

89.1

23

44

2.3

1.9

11/12

Omaha

0.937

128

39

81

2.7

2.1

While Salt Lake & Vegas have very similar park factors, O'Sullivan's walk rate/9ip is dramatically different. In fact, that O'Sullivan's best walk rate was when he was based in Las Vegas!

Walk rate wise, the below average run environment of Omaha slots in halfway between the two. Surprisingly, his k:bb ratio held nearly constant across all three home parks - when he walked more he also k'd more.

There is no empirical evidence of the Vegas run environment impacting O'Sullivan's walk rate. Of course, O'Sullivan was 2 years older than Wheeler when he first hit Vegas and had experience pitching in the equivalently tough Salt Lake park before arriving. This leads to the possibility that experience helped equip O'Sullivan to better handle the challenges of a run friendly environment. And experience is the one thing that most observers agree is one of the few things Wheeler is lacking.

If Wheeler's promoted tomorrow he'll be getting experience in a better run environment but against much more accomplished hitters. Where do those variables intersect? I can only guess. But if I had to I'd guess it's a lot tougher getting MLBers out in a pitchers park than getting Minor Leaguers out in a hitters park - but I don't have actual evidence. But if the experience argument holds water then O'Sullivan is direct proof that pitching in a tough PCL environment doesn't doom you to walking the park - with experience, he improved his bb/rate when he got to Vegas.

Example #2: Jesse Chavez

Jesse Chavez is a 30 year old 4A guy originally drafted by Texas in the 42nd round in 2002. He's logged 109 big league appearances with only 2 starts but made 18 starts for Vegas last season.

Chavez has managed to call five different AAA parks his home although for our purposes we'll throw out OKC where he only tossed 2 innings and Sacto where the sample size is 27ip. We're left with:

Year

Team

Pk Fctr

ip

bb

k

bb/9ip

k:bb

07/08

IND-INT

0.995

97.1

26

81

2.4

3.1

2011

OMA-PCL

0.937

57.2

16

54

2.5

3.4

2012

Vegas-PCL

1.189

95

20

86

1.9

4.3

250

62

221

2.2

3.6

We find one nearly exactly league average home park but in the much lower run environment of the International League, a second pitcher leaning park but in the higher run environment of the PCL, and of course, Vegas.

Guess where he showed the best command? Vegas. He also posted a substantially higher k:bb ratio while calling Vegas his home.

Example #3: Bill Murphy

A soon to be 32 year old with 18 major league relief appearances on his card, Bill Murphy has called 3 different AAA parks home. As is becoming apparent, the 2012 Vegas rotation wasn't exactly made up of young studs. Murphy had 15 starts for Vegas last season.

Year

Team

Pk Fctr

ip

bb

k

bb/9ip

k:bb

05-07

TUS-PCL

1.103

302

159

261

4.7

1.6

08

SYR-INT

1.051

142

84

152

5.3

1.8

09,12

Vegas

1.189

154

82

110

4.8

1.3

598

325

523

4.9

1.6

Bill Murphy is the 3rd member of the 2012 Vegas rotation whose walk rate didn't suffer a lick from the Vegas environment. It was virtually the same as when he pitched in a slightly more favorable park in Tuscon and was markedly better than when he pitched in the much lower run-scoring environment of the International League. What we do find for the first time is that his k:bb ration suffered dropping from 1.6 on average to 1.3 in the PCL. But it's important to note that Murphy has been unacceptably wild everywhere he's pitched in AAA - he was just a bit less wild in Vegas than Syracuse.

Example #4: Scott Richmond

Hard to draw many lessons from this 33 year old who got 25 starts for Vegas last season. Scott Richmond only has 48 AAA innings pitched outside of Vegas where he's thrown 262.6ip.

Year

Team

Pk Fctr

ip

bb

k

bb/9ip

k:bb

2008

SYR-INT

1.051

48

13

40

2.4

3.1

2009

Vegas

1.189

5.1

1

5

1.7

5.0

2010

Vegas

1.189

41

12

36

2.6

3.0

2011

Vegas

1.189

113

56

87

4.5

1.6

2012

Vegas

1.189

134.2

43

112

2.8

2.6

294

125

280

3.8

2.2

Again, the limited non-Vegas data makes it very difficult to draw any conclusions except to perhaps note that he's had Vegas seasons where he's been both way below and way above his AAA average walk rate. After a crappy walk rate there in 2011 he had huge improvement in 2012. In other words, he either posted random variation or adjusted. It appears it is possible.

Example #5: Shawn Hill

Another 32 year old - boy that's an old rotation.

Year

Team

Pk Fctr

ip

bb

k

bb/9ip

k:bb

2006

NEW-PCL

0.771

5

2

2

3.6

1.0

07/08

COL-INT

1.283

11

0

2

0

DNA

10,12

Vegas

1.189

110.2

27

61

2.2

2.3

2013

TOL-INT

0.917

33.1

4

19

1.1

4.7

160

33

84

1.85

2.5

Non-LV

49.1

6

23

1.1

3.8

Not sure that there are enough innings outside of Vegas to discern anything useful. But if you add up the 3 other small parks and treat them as one then we have our first example of someone whose walk rate is dramatically higher in Vegas than other places. BUT . . . it goes from 1.1 bb/9ip - which is probably totally unsustainable - all the way up to 2.2 in Vegas! Imagine giving up 2.2 walks every nine innings in an extreme hitters park - the horror!

Example #6: Drew Carpenter

The baby of the bunch, Drew Carpenter will be 28 in three weeks. A big righty from Long Beach State he's made 23 big league appearances and gives us the ability to compare his performance across the International League & PCL. His AAA walk/k chart:

Year

Team

Pk Fctr

ip

bb

k

bb/9ip

k:bb

08-11

LHV-INT

0.941

374.1

115

306

2.8

2.7

2012

Vegas

1.189

74.2

19

56

2.3

2.9

2012

BUF INT

1.043

4.2

0

6

0

DNA

2013

IOW-PCL

0.834

19

12

12

5.7

1

472.2

146

380

2.8

2.6

Once again, our hero somehow managed to overcome the atrocious Vegas park factor and allow fewer walks per nine innings than he did in a pitcher friendly park in a pitcher friendlier league.

Bottom line - there is nothing among the performance of last years Vegas rotation to suggest the "park" is going to make you walk more batters.

The season is young. Control is something the brass wanted him to work on. It looks like, through no fault of the park, they were right to want him to polish his command. If he's near as good as we hope, he'll make progress. And that progress will not be impeded by pitching in Vegas. Wheeler may or may not become the stud we all hope for, but if he doesn't it will have a lot more to do with his inability to adjust than to the air in Vegas.

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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