With the trade deadline now in the past, Zack Wheeler is still on the Mets’ roster. Coming into the season, it didn’t seem like he’d get much hype at the deadline, but his name came up plenty because of his performance over the weeks leading up to it. There’s no guarantee that Wheeler will with the Mets next season, but let’s take a look at what he’s doing differently at this point in the season—a topic that came up back in the middle of June, as well.
Looking at the typical numbers, there aren’t massive differences in Wheeler’s strikeout and walk rates when comparing this year to last year. At 22.8 percent, his strikeout rate is just a bit above his career rate of 22.1 percent, and his swinging strike rate is at a career-high 10.9 percent, which could be indicative of more strikeouts to come. Wheeler’s walk rate is at 8.3 percent right now, well below his previous single-season marks of 10.7, 10.0, and 10.4—and his career 9.8 percent rate.
The biggest difference between 2017 and 2018 for Wheeler, though, comes from his home run rate, which was a very bad 1.56 per nine in the former and is sitting at a much more reasonable 0.82 per nine so far this year. Add it all up, and Wheeler has a 4.11 ERA and 3.57 FIP on the season, both of which are substantially improved when compared to his 5.21 ERA and 5.03 FIP last year. And he’s gotten better as the season has gone on, with a 4.09 ERA in March/April, a 6.43 ERA in May, a 3.26 ERA in June, and a 3.13 ERA in July.
Throwing hard doesn’t necessarily mean pitching well, but if you had to choose between throwing hard and not throwing hard, you’d always choose the former. And when it comes to single-season fastball velocity, Wheeler is at the top of his game in 2018, averaging 96.44 miles per hour on his four-seam, per Brooks Baseball. Things started going really well for Wheeler in early June, which was when his velocity started ticking up.
He threw almost as hard back in 2014, a season that ended a few months before he wound up needing Tommy John surgery. But his velocity has increased every month during this season, with his 96.98 and 97.00 mile-per-hour averages in June and July ranking as the top two marks of his career. And he’s throwing his changeup and slider harder than ever before, too.
Just as pitch velocity doesn’t guarantee success, limiting exit velocity doesn’t necessarily mean a pitcher will put up shiny overall numbers. That said, Wheeler’s average exit velocity against is just 84.8 miles per hour, the fifth-best mark among the 185 pitchers who appear on Statcast’s leaderboard. Last year, Wheeler was at 87.0 miles per hour in the metric, and he was much more middle-of-the-pack on the leaderboard.
Opposing batters are swinging at 48.3 percent of Wheeler’s pitches—a career high—and they’re making contact just 77.1 percent of the time, a relatively good mark when compared to Wheeler’s career.
Here’s another thing that seemed a bit different back in June: Wheeler has thrown his fastball less often and his slider more. That trend has only been solidified over the past few weeks, with the fastball dropping more and the slider still rising.
And while it’s more subtle, Wheeler has continued to throw his splitter, which was a new addition this season, more frequently. The pitch overtook his changeup in usage by a little bit in July after tying it in June. Both pitches are still relatively rare, but it’s a difference nonetheless.
Take it all into consideration, and maybe Wheeler really has turned a corner. If you’re making that case, you can certainly back it up, at the very least. And since they held on to him, at least for now, the Mets have to be hoping he can sustain his success and stay healthy—which has rarely been the case over the course of his major league career.