Zack Wheeler went over two years without making a major league start, but after surprisingly claiming one of the spots in the Mets’ Opening Day rotation, he has two under his belt this year. He’s set to make his third tonight against the Phillies at Citi Field, which gives us an excuse to look at what he’s thrown in the first two.
Before the Tommy John surgery that cost him the past two seasons, Wheeler relied heavily on his fastball. In his rookie season, he leaned on his four-seam fastball, which he threw 61.57 percent of the time according to Brooks Baseball. He threw a two-seam fastball that year, too, 9.65 percent of the time, along with a curve 10 percent, a slider 15.64, and a changeup 3.14 percent of the time.
The following year, Wheeler moved away from the four-seam fastball a bit, as he used it 43.98 percent of the time. That drop-off coincided with an uptick in use of his two-seam fastball 18.05 percent, the curve 15.74 percent, the slider 15.05 percent, and the change 7.17 percent of the time.
All along, Wheeler threw hard. His four-seam fastball averaged 95.45 miles per hour in 2013 and 96.17 in 2014. The two-seam wasn’t that far behind, at 94.82 and 95.69 miles per hour, respectively.
This year’s work is a very small sample, but it’s encouraging that Wheeler has averaged 94.66 with the four-seam fastball and 94.29 with the two-seam in his first two starts. His velocity hasn’t always peaked in the warmer days of summer, but in his only full major league season in 2014, he threw his hardest in July and August. So the drop-off from his pre-Tommy John era velocity doesn’t seem too stark compared to, say, April of 2014, when he averaged 95.55 and 95.00 miles per hour on those pitches.
All five of the pitches Wheeler was throwing pre-surgery have still been in his arsenal in his pair of starts. He’s shifted his fastball use even more toward the two-seam version, but his four-seam has still been his most-frequently-used pitch.
And like his rookie season, Wheeler has thrown his slider more often than his curveball, which along with his changeup has taken a small step back in the mix. Overall, he hasn’t been a drastically different pitcher than he was before the pair of missed seasons, but it’s a little bit interesting that the very early returns have him continuing the shift away from his fastball and toward his offspeed stuff.
Fastball vs. Offspeed
There’s a long way to go this year before determining whether or not any of what Wheeler has done so far is permanent. But the offspeed pitches have generally been his bread and butter when it comes to getting swings-and-misses—especially the slider. He’s at a 9.7 percent swinging strike through his first pair of starts, just a tick below the 10.0 percent rate he posted in 2014. The strikeouts haven’t been there at the same clip, but that’s a positive sign.
The fact that Zack Wheeler is pitching for the Mets at all is a really great thing right now given the injuries to Steven Matz and Seth Lugo. It also helps a lot that he looks like the same pitcher we got familiar with back in 2014.
Wheeler wasn’t the Mets’ best pitcher then and probably won’t be going forward, but it doesn’t look like he’s starting over. And while some bumps along the road after such a long layoff would be understandable, he probably didn’t unlearn everything that those first two seasons in the big leagues taught him.
In a pitchers-don’t-get-hurt world, Wheeler might not be one of the Mets’ top five pitchers, though Robert Gsellman hasn’t done anything just yet to make it look like that’s the case. But his renewed ability to pitch in major league games couldn’t have come at a better time, and since his stuff looks right, it’s not impossible to dream on what Wheeler looked like he could be when the 2014 season ended: a good pitcher who had finally turned the corner.