Zack Wheeler constantly works to live up to the hype

Zack Wheeler looks on during a game against Zack Wheeler looks on during a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on May 7, 2014 in Miami, Florida. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mike Ehrmann

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Circumstance has presented Zack Wheeler with every opportunity to crumble.

At 23, in his first full big league season, Wheeler is learning under fire. The fate of the Mets rests partly on how quickly he can adjust to facing the world's best hitters. He feels that responsibility. He knows the expectations. He hears the comparisons.

In a similar position a year ago, Matt Harvey proved he was immune from pesky learning curves. Wheeler is not Harvey. On a fundamental level, he accepts this, which has helped him to maintain some perspective.

"Harvey set a huge standard, a high standard," Wheeler said. "A lot of people think everybody who comes up is just going to deal. But I mean, it's not always like that, and people should know that. This is not an excuse for me. But everybody learns. Everybody has their troubles. Everybody has their high points and low points."

So far, he's endured plenty of lows.

Wheeler makes his 10th start of the season on Saturday against the Diamondbacks. He'll bring a 1-4 record with a 4.53 ERA, numbers that hint at his problems with command. He's tied for the third most walks in the National League with 26. He's third worst among qualifiers in WHIP (1.57).

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"I knew there would be a learning experience obviously, because this is the biggest stage," Wheeler said on Thursday. "There's not another level. But I was understanding of that. I knew it was going to come at some point."

Earlier in the day, the Royals demoted Mike Moustakas, the highly touted third baseman who has faltered (.152 batting average) despite considerable hype. Wheeler is in no immediate danger of meeting such a fate according to a team insider, who characterized the chances of a demotion as "remote."

Yet, Wheeler was keenly aware of what happened to Moustakas, a reminder that hype ultimately offers no cover for underperformance.

"I know it's there because I'm human," Wheeler said. "I'm not a robot thinking it's never going to happen to me. It's there. But it's not messing with my mind."

The latter point is what has most impressed Mets manager Terry Collins. He has seen young players fold under the weight of expectations. He has seen them fall prey to their own insecurities. But in watching Wheeler deal with troubles, Collins has only grown more confident in a turnaround.

"There's those guys, who sometimes, they can't bounce back," Collins said. "There are those guys that say 'I can't do it. I thought I could do it. I just don't have it.' They say it to themselves on the inside. But this kid's not like that."

Wheeler has shown an uncommon ability to shake off his bad starts, Collins said, while also following through with his efforts to get better. Words have been backed up by action.

Said Collins: "It's not a matter of 'OK, I'll get 'em next time.' He works at it."

One of Wheeler's strengths, catcher Travis d'Arnaud said, has been his ability to draw the line between accepting his shortcomings and simply wallowing in them. When he attacks his issues, it's with a clear head.

"He's never in denial," said d'Arnaud, Wheeler's roommate at Triple-A Las Vegas. "He's a very realistic guy. If he's not doing well, he admits it. If he knows it's true, he's the type of guy who's going to do something to fix it, instead of just mope around about it."

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Wheeler brought that pragmatic approach with him to the bullpen on Thursday afternoon. Earlier in the day, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw sought permission from Collins to watch Wheeler's throwing session. The two-time Cy Young Award winner wanted a closer look, Collins said, so long as it wouldn't make Wheeler nervous.

Said Collins: 'I said, 'This kid ain't afraid of [anything].' "

Wheeler went about his preparations as normal. First, he made a few mechanical adjustments, hoping to regain better command of his blazing fastball. Then, he went to work on his slider, a pitch he never expected would give him so much trouble.

Last year, opponents hit .227 against his slider. This year, they're hitting .281.

In the minors, it had been a put-away pitch, a handy weapon when the occasion called for the strikeout. He figured, correctly, that the movement alone was enough to entice hitters to swing.

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But major leaguers recognize pitches in an instant. They pick up the spin of the ball, allowing them to differentiate between fastballs and breaking balls. He has discovered that starting his slider on the outer half of the plate -- then allowing the natural action to take it out of the strike zone -- is often a losing formula.

Minor-leaguers swing. Big-leaguers take.

"It has no shot at being a strike," he said. "If it starts on the outside corner, they can see that spin."

A season ago, hitters whiffed at Wheeler's slider 13.3 percent of the time, the highest of all his pitches. This season, it's 11.6 percent, a slight though noticeable dip. So, in his bullpen, he focused on his mechanics, hoping that a few alterations will keep his slider from veering out of the strike zone.

"It's not helping me any," Wheeler said of the pitch. "That's why I am where I am right now."

So where exactly is that? For Wheeler, it's a place of growth, which isn't altogether surprising. He understands his flaws, yet he's secure enough in his own abilities to address them. For people not named Matt Harvey, the process takes time.

Wheeler expected as much.

"I don't want it to be part of the deal because, obviously, I want to be ballin' right now," he said. "But it's part of the game."

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