Zack Wheeler’s 2017 season began was feel-good comeback story of sorts. The former top prospect had seen his star dimmed and his career effectively put on hold due to a long, arduous return from Tommy John surgery. It had been over two full years since Wheeler had so much as stepped on a major league mound, but in 2017, the talented 27-year-old was back, healthy and ready to finally contribute for the Mets once again.
Wheeler began spring training in a battle for the fifth rotation spot with Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo. There was some thought about sending him down to start the season, but injuries to both Steven Matz and Lugo at the end of March forced both Wheeler and Gsellman into the Opening Day rotation.
In Wheeler’s first start of the season on April 7, it looked every bit like he hadn’t thrown a regular season pitch in nearly 30 calendar months. He was knocked around that night for five runs in four innings by the Marlins, and took the loss. But his second start against the Phillies went much more smoothly, as he tossed 5.2 innings of three-run ball—the three runs were actually surrendered by Hansel Robles as inherited runners—and he earned his first win since September 19, 2014.
More importantly, though, that start was the first in what turned out to be an outstanding ten-start stretch in which Wheeler was arguably the team’s best starting pitcher. From April 12 to June 7, he had an impressive 2.91 ERA, 3.87 FIP, and 4.16 xFIP, while striking out almost eight batters per nine and averaging just 0.77 HR/9 during that stretch. Now, as he is wont to do, Wheeler still struggled with his command over that time period, walking over 10% of hitters across those ten starts. That said, Wheeler’s early output was already far beyond what the Mets could have reasonably hoped from him at the beginning of the year.
Unfortunately, his season would fall off a steep cliff immediately after that. His first two starts after that stretch were unmitigated disasters. Wheeler combined to pitch just 3.2 innings over those two starts while allowing 15 earned runs, 14 hits, five home runs, and three walks. He faced 28 total hitters in the two outings, and 17 of them reached base. On June 21, he was placed on the 10-day disabled list with biceps tendinitis.
He was activated on July 1, and he never really found his groove again after that. He made just four more uneven starts before landing back on the disabled list on July 24, this time with what was described as a “stress reaction” in his right arm.
He attempted to make it back before the end of the season, but was eventually shut down on August 24, which may have been more out of precaution than anything. The team was far out of the race at that point, and Wheeler had already thrown 86.1 innings on the year, which was close to the limit the Mets had placed on him at around 100 innings.
Overall, Wheeler finished with a 5.21 ERA and a 5.03 FIP on the year, which probably doesn’t do justice for the number of quality outings he was able to give. He did walk 10.4% of hitters on the year, but still struck out 21.4% of hitters, while also inducing ground balls and getting whiffs at similar rates to his pre-surgery days. The 27-year-old still has a world of talent, and didn’t see any drop off in velocity after the two-year layoff. His successes this year show that he is still capable of being a quality major-league starter.
That being said, his main hurdles appear to be the same as they were before the surgery: control, pitching deep into games, and health. If Wheeler could ever stay healthy and hone in his control, he still has enough latent talent be a very good major league pitcher. But if he can’t do that, then he will probably struggle to be much more than an inconsistent, oft-injured, middling starter going forward.
Looking towards next season, Wheeler will likely have to battle for a rotation spot once again, along with a litany of other starting pitchers on the Mets’ roster. As long as he’s healthy, though, Wheeler will likely pitch at the major league level in some capacity, but a future as a reliever is not out of the question now for the former top prospect.