On Monday, word surfaced the New York Mets Zack Wheeler, reportedly with the Boston Red Sox. Wheeler, a free agent at season’s end, is likely to be moved to a contender in the coming weeks now that the Mets are out of the playoff picture with the second-worst record in the National League.
Wheeler started 19 times for the Mets in the first half, amassing a 4.69 ERA (86 ERA+) and 119 innings. Since 2017, he’s accumulated a 94 ERA+ in 65 starts — or, on the aggregate, has been a league-average starter. Yet there is some belief in the league he could net a better return than expected — in part because the market will offer only so many starters, and in part because some teams may view him as a worthwhile upside play.
The first part is self-explanatory. The second, though? That’s interesting. As such, let’s take a look at four attributes that make Wheeler someone an appealing target.
In this era, pitcher evaluations always begin with velocity. Wheeler, for his part, can bring the heat. His fastball has averaged around 97 mph this season, putting him in the 95th percentile, according to Statcast.
Wheeler’s arm strength isn’t to be questioned then. He’s elite, so far as starters go.
2. Spin rate
What do teams want in their pitchers nowadays? Ideally high-velocity, high-spin fastballs that can challenge batters up in the zone. Wheeler has the first part — and the second.
Although Wheeler’s fastball spin isn’t as outstanding as his velocity relative to the league, he nonetheless ranks in the 64th percentile. To contextualize further: he’s 34th among pitchers with more than 1,000 tosses — just behind Blake Snell, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.
Wheeler may want to take some notes from Snell on how to leverage his spin with elevation. Whereas Snell has the third-highest average fastball location, Wheeler checks in at 57th.
3. Component measures
We mentioned Wheeler has an 86 ERA+ on the season. What we didn’t mention is he also has a 3.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio — the best mark of his career.
In fact, Wheeler’s rate statistics suggest he’s performed much better than his ERA. He’s walking a career-low 2.6 batters per nine, and has yielded less than a hit per inning. Wheeler is giving up more home runs than usual (1.2 per nine), but the juiced ball is at least partially responsible.
To give an idea of how much better Wheeler looks through the lens of advanced measures, consider that Wheeler currently has a 3.65 FIP — or, on par with Matthew Boyd, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, and Luis Castillo. To take it a step further, his 3.12 DRA puts him in the company of Sonny Gray, Justin Verlander, Rich Hill, and Mike Minor.
Even if you don’t believe Wheeler has been as good as, say, the AL All-Star Game starter — hey, fair enough — it’s clear he deserves a better ERA.
It’s easy to write Wheeler has pitched better than his ERA — but is his ERA ugly, anyway? You can blame the Mets’ defense for a fair chunk of the discrepancy.
New York ranks 27th in baseball in defensive efficiency — that is, turning batted balls into outs. The Mets are particularly poor at converting grounders into outs, ranking second-to-last there. Wheeler’s groundball rate is only average, yet opponents are hitting .278 when they put the ball on the ground against him — that’s 28 percent worse than the league-average mark.
Going just by the above, Wheeler is a pitcher who 1) has a lively, perhaps misused fastball; 2) is controlling what he can control (strikeouts, walks, and home runs); and 3) is surrounded by below-average-to-poor defenders, including behind the plate. Based on those points alone, he would qualify as a pitcher with more upside than his current numbers suggest.
There is, of course, more to Wheeler than just those points. He doesn’t have great command, and he’s battled with injuries before. But there are other positives worth highlighting, too, like how he’s generated at least 20 percent whiffs on three distinct secondary offerings. In so many words, he has many of the innate characteristics teams desire in their starters.
Overall, Wheeler does look like a compelling acquisition — particularly for teams who have shown an ability to get the most from their arms. Don’t be surprised, then, if one of these contenders with a supposed pitching guru — be it the Red Sox (with Brian Bannister), Houston Astros (Brent Strom), Minnesota Twins (Wes Johnson), or New York Yankees (Larry Rothschild) — add Wheeler to the mix and help him unlock a higher level of performance down the stretch.