Barring an extension, 2019 will be Zack Wheeler’s last season as a New York Met. And he’s poised for it to be a big one. 2018 was a milestone season for Wheeler, his first healthy season since 2014. While watching Wheeler put up a 1.68 ERA over the second half, it was easy to forget that he started 2018 in the minor leagues. A poor spring training performance to the tune of an 8.10 ERA landed Wheeler in Vegas, while Seth Lugo filled in for the injured Jason Vargas instead. He watched every Mets game during his brief time away from the big league club, longing to be a part of the action.
It was a feeling that was all too familiar for Wheeler. “Mentally, it takes a freaking toll on you,” he said in an interview at Mets camp. “Especially being out for two years—missing the playoffs, missing the World Series—that’s tough. I think it was more mentally tough than physically.”
In his first game back up from the minors last April, Wheeler tossed seven innings of two-hit ball and struck out seven in a 4-1 win over the Marlins and he didn’t look back. This spring, his mentality is one of a player finally confident in his ability and his role on the team. And there is every reason to believe that he can sustain last season’s second-half success. He made tangible changes in his approach and pitch usage that generated more soft contact. He started using a new pitch—a split-fingered fastball.
But most of all, he was pain-free. He was able to throw bullpens and make mechanical adjustments without those tweaks being punctuated by soreness and rehab stints. That gave him the confidence he needed to throw inside and generate results.
The projection systems don’t peg Wheeler for having quite the season he had last year, but they still predict a solid campaign nonetheless. Steamer projects a 3.85 ERA and 3.82 FIP over 171 innings, good for 2.7 fWAR—short of the 4.1 fWAR he posted last season, but nearly identical to his 2014 season. PECOTA is even less optimistic, predicting he will toss just 159 2⁄3 innings with a 3.94 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, accruing just 1.2 WARP.
It’s not surprising that the projections seem rather cautious about Wheeler, given his robust injury history, but there is evidence that the formulas do not necessarily take into account showing that his 2018 probably wasn’t a fluke. For a guy like Wheeler who lacks a strong track record, it’s hard to put much stock in what the projection systems say.
“His stuff is insane,” Steven Matz said of Wheeler. “Slider, splitter, curveball, changeup. When all that kind of clicked, it’s almost like it was expected to happen when you’ve got that kind of stuff.”
If it keeps clicking, it will be a huge boon to the 2019 Mets.