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Zack Wheeler’s season is off to an awful start

Coming off an incredible second half in 2018, Wheeler has struggled in his first two starts.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

In the second half of the season last year, Zack Wheeler was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Over the course of eleven starts and 75 innings, he had a 1.68 ERA that ranked second-best among qualified pitchers and a 2.53 FIP that ranked seventh-best. It was just a half of a season—which isn’t long by baseball standards—but he was up there with the likes of Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer over that span. It gave the Mets and their fans at least some reason to hope that he could be a borderline ace this year rather than the borderline major league pitcher that he appeared to be before last season began.

Two starts into this season, though, Wheeler hasn’t looked the part of a borderline ace at all. He’s thrown 9.2 innings in total and has a 10.24 ERA and 4.95 FIP. While his 19.6 percent strikeout rate is only somewhat lower than his career and 2018 rates, his 17.4 percent walk rate is far higher than his rates of the past.

Unsurprisingly, hitters have swung at Wheeler’s pitches less often than they had in the past, and they’ve swung at pitches outside the strike zone just 21.2 percent of the time, a massive drop from his career and 2018 rates that suggests Wheeler is missing the strike zone by a lot. He issued seven walks against the Nationals on Sunday, the most he’s ever issued in a start.

In terms of velocity, Wheeler looks fine. He’s thrown just about as hard as ever in these two starts, per Brooks Baseball, with a four-seam fastball that has averaged 97.4 miles per hour. But he’s not generating swinging strikes as well as he did last year, and he’s averaged 20.5 pitches per inning.

The second half of last season shouldn’t have been taken too seriously when projecting Wheeler’s performance this year, though his first two starts of the season are far from conclusive. Even before the second-half performance last year, Wheeler’s career numbers—especially the walk rate—were better. There’s no guarantee that he’ll return to form, but everything about his past performance suggests that he will improve dramatically moving forward. The Mets desperately need him to at least be a decent major league starting pitcher, ideally in the very near future.