It’s a bit of an understatement to declare that Mets fans have great expectations for Zack Wheeler. Fair or not, following an impressive major league debut where he struck out seven Atlanta Braves, it was almost as if the collective consciousness of the fanbase shifted to Binghamton and Noah Syndergaard, wondering "How long ‘til the next one?"
And it’s not hard to understand why. First and foremost, the Mets haven’t seriously competed in years. Mets fans are hungrier than most for the talent that will lead them out of the mire. That fact is perhaps doubly true for talent that was so tangibly connected to Carlos Beltran and the tear-down inherent anytime a team trades a superstar for a prospect. Were Wheeler simply obtained by the Mets via the draft, expectations would no doubt exist; but the ‘traded for a potential Hall of Famer’ narrative certainly brings it to another level.
Another significant factor is, let’s face it, the meteoric rise of Matt Harvey. Put simply, Matt Harveys don’t happen. Pitching prospects don’t just improve the way he has after reaching the majors – not this quickly. And yet he’s doing it. He’s the one-in-a-hundred, a thousand, maybe more. We know that. We know about all the pitching prospects that haven’t worked out in the past. But it’s only human nature to weigh the most recent data most heavily. And why not? We heard all along that Wheeler was the better prospect anyway, right?
And so, somewhat unfairly, the expectations are indeed great. But what would be fair? What would it be reasonable to expect from Zack Wheeler, were he not part of the holy salvation of young pitching?
If we wanted to be reasonable, what we could do is look at every first-year pitcher over the last X amount of years and document their results. Except, Wheeler isn't every first-year pitcher. Wheeler is a future stud -- at least according to just about every scout that's ever seen him.
So I've gone ahead and aggregated the first major league seasons* of every pitching prospect that fell within the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects -- like Zack Wheeler did -- since 2009 (click image to embiggen):
*I defined 'first major league season' as the first season that a pitcher reached ten or more starts. I also left out pitchers who compiled more than 30 relief appearances before their first ten starts (Daniel Bard, Andrew Cashner, Chris Sale, and Jeff Samardzija). I left guys like Yu Darvish and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the mix, though it's fair to say they may not belong. You'll notice some rows colored gray; those were the pitchers with some amount of major league experience in prior seasons.
So what do we find? Well, the sort of disappointing truth is that this highly-talented group of 43 pitchers amassed a so-so 4.35 ERA in their first extended stretches as big league starters. Obviously many of them went on to bigger, better things. Some didn't.
I sliced and diced the data every which way in order to see if there were any trends; however, there wasn't really much there. College guys posted a 4.52 mark; high school guys a 4.22. I figured perhaps prior experience might mean something. Pitchers with prior innings in the majors: 4.22 ERA. Pitcher's without: 4.40. In the end, most pitchers seemed to need their first season to get their feet under them, so to speak. Young, old, lefty, righty. Didn't really matter.
Deep down we all sort of knew this; very rare is the pitcher who doesn't experience any sort of adjustment period before "going the distance" in establishing himself -- which, once again, brings us to Harvey. This data only makes it more clear that the Mets young ace is an outlier, posting one of the three lowest ERAs of the group.
Therefore, as tempting as it may be, you may not want to expect too much from Zack Wheeler just yet. We all know he's got the ability. He's got the plus-plus fastball, the outstanding curve. The stuff is at the top of the scale, and by all accounts he's not far away from harnessing it. But like all things when it comes to the latest incarnation of this team, give it some time.