For much of the 2018 season, Zack Wheeler has been the strongest testament to Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland‘s respective successes in chiseling out a stronger, more efficient starting rotation. Some elements of his past dominance, such as the refined fastball and sharp control, were certainly on display in the Mets’ 16-5 rout of the Baltimore Orioles last night. For the most part, however, Wheeler scuffled his way through the night. In five innings of work (his shortest outing since July 9), the righty struck out only three while allowing five hits and two walks while also hitting a batter.
Wheeler threw just 62.1% of his 95 pitches for strikes – his lowest figure since June 16, and the sluggishness was particularly obvious in the first inning, when he allowed his one run on three hits in a 34-pitch affair. In fairness, the hits were all singles, and Wheeler concluded matters with a strikeout of Chris Davis on a high fastball after receiving a visit from Eiland. However, he struggled to establish his breaking pitches, and it forced him into some deep counts and long at-bats.
While he worked his way to a two-strike count with five of the first six batters he faced, Wheeler threw 15 total pitches once in the two-strike count, effectively averaging three extra pitches per count before (hopefully) putting his opponent away. Prior to the at-bat against Davis, Wheeler had tossed 27 pitches – one splitter, three sliders, two curveballs, and 21 fastballs. Whether it was a lack of confidence or a potential result of discomfort, Wheeler took quite some time to get the first inning out of the way – at least relative to his more recent starts.
The second inning looked destined for better things after Wheeler retired two of his first three batters on 11 pitches, but things again hit a rough patch, as he would hit Jonathan Villar with a bad curveball after easing into a 1-2 count. Immediately thereafter, Wheeler found himself entangled in a battle with Renato Nuñez that, although punctuated by a strikeout on a better curve, still commanded eight pitches to push his pitch count (at that point) to 57 pitches.
“I don’t know… the old Zack Wheeler reared his ugly head today,” he admitted when asked how he managed five innings, ultimately blaming his lack of control on poor mechanics. “I felt terrible command-wise today with everything. It was a battle. I got through five, so I was happy with that after the first two innings.”
The next two frames went by much more smoothly for Wheeler, as he needed just seven in a spotless third inning before working around two baserunners at the beginning of the fourth. After Davis singled off the wall and Tim Beckham hashed a walk out of a six-pitch at-bat, Wheeler worked ahead of outfielder Cedric Mullins 0-2 before he popped out behind the plate. Despite falling behind 2-0 on catcher Austin Wynns, everything worked itself out, as Wheeler induced a 5-4-3 double play to put himself back on the map. His teammates thanked him by turning their 2-1 lead into a 5-1 cushion that, as suggested by Callaway, was well deserved after the righty bounced back from his slow start:
“He wasn’t getting his slider to look like a strike very much,” he said. “It was just kinda yanked into the dirt. But he survived and that’s what really good pitchers do.”
While he ultimately found a handle after stumbling early, Wheeler wasn’t able to go out with the same feel, as a 19-pitch fifth knocked him out of contention for a quality start. In some respects, his struggles reemerged, as he threw just two of his last eight pitches for strikes. Even with the first two outs under his belt early on (one a Villar groundout and another a Nuñez strikeout), Wheeler fell behind Adam Jones 3-0 and walked him immediately after the obligatory called strike that made it 3-1. Mark Trumbo‘s at-bat seemed destined for a similar fate after Wheeler fell behind 2-0, but the 96th and final pitch of his night resulted in a 6-4 putout – arguably a gimme – that helped keep things together.
All in all, with just one run allowed in such an inconsistent start, it has only gotten harder for the organization, its fans, and perhaps the rest of the league to ignore the strides Zack Wheeler continues to make in his strongest season to date. His ERA now sits at 3.75… not too shabby for somebody who began the season warming up in a Las Vegas 51s uniform.