In a fantastic Fangraphs piece written by Jeff Sullivan, he acknowledges the imperfections in Zack Wheeler’s command and introduces the possibility of the receivers catching Wheeler playing a role in last season’s strike numbers.
Sullivan states that Wheeler certainly needs to polish his command to reach his lofty expectations. He’s always walked batters in the minors but, with his excessive strikeout numbers, they did not hurt him much. However, he’s currently guaranteed a rotation spot on the big club this season where he’ll have to throw more strikes and command his pitches with more efficiency to see the same results.
He also had this to say about Wheeler’s strike throwing ability:
“What we can tell is that Wheeler needs to throw some more strikes. Another thing we can tell is that that statement deserves an asterisk.”
What Sullivan means by this is that due to the poor pitch-receiving abilities of John Buck (1.7 strikes below average per game) and Anthony Recker (1.5 strikes below average per game), Wheeler’s strike percentage may have looked uglier than it could have.
He also points out that the receiving got better with Travis d’Arnaud’s promotion with whom he threw 62.5% strikes and only 0.5 strikes below average per start. With Buck and Recker, it was merely 60.4% and 2.8 strikes below average per start.
Here’s what Sullivan had to say if Wheeler had benefited from league average receivers instead of Buck/Recker:
“Wheeler lost some strikes in the zone, and he lost some strikes out of it. If you just plug in league-average numbers, then Wheeler would’ve gained about 35 strikes, lifting his strike rate roughly two percentage points”
Sullivan does not put all the blame on Buck and Recker however, as he suggests the possibility of Wheeler missing his targets, thus taking away the chance of a called strike. He also expresses confidence that Wheeler’s strike throwing ability will improve the more he throws to d’Arnaud and that it’s hard to imagine the situation being any worse than last season.
In the piece, Wheeler’s situation is compared to the progression of other pitchers with strikeout potential and command issues:
“I identified starting pitchers who were 23 somewhere between 2002-2011. Then I started to narrow the pool. I set a walk-rate minimum of 9%. I set a strikeout-rate minimum of 16%, and a contact-rate minimum of 76%. The idea was to get a group of pitchers who had some command issues, but who demonstrated true strikeout ability. I was left looking at 25 names, from CC Sabathia to Casey Coleman.”
The follow up was very promising:
“I then looked at what those same pitchers did in the following two years, spanning 24 to 25 years old. As a group, unweighted, they averaged 8.9% walks, 19.8% strikeouts, and 79.3% contact. Ten of the 25 pitchers were worth at least 5 WAR during the two years. Five were worth at least 8 WAR.”
Sullivan concludes the piece expressing his confidence in Wheeler’s ability to improve his walk rate beyond the simple advantage of having a better receiver. Although he conveys skepticism that Wheeler will ever be “great,” he expects him to be a great sidekick behind the Mets ace, Matt Harvey.
I urge everyone to read the full piece here.