Zack Wheeler understands innings limits

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a game

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a game against the Atlanta Braves. (Aug. 20, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Zack Wheeler is nearing uncharted territory.

For the first time in his career, he will be expected to pitch through the month of September. He already has logged 138 1/3 innings and is on pace to blow by his previous high of 149 innings last season. He's never put this much strain on his body, and the Mets phenom says he can feel it.

"I throw one as hard as I can and it says 93,'' Wheeler said this week. "And I'm like, 'So, we're at this point of the season.' ''

It's part of the reason the 23-year-old understands the measures the Mets have adopted to limit his workload, part of their larger efforts to protect his promising young arm. "I want to go out there and pitch,'' he said. "But I don't think my arm does, you know? It's nice to have limits here and there.''

Innings limits remain a contentious subject to some within the game. Traditionalists scoff at efforts to carefully manage workloads to protect young arms from injury. Others question whether such precautions have any meaningful effect, noting pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg who have endured injuries despite efforts to ease the strain placed upon his arm.

Every big-league team has adopted measures to protect young pitchers. And some, such as 24-year-old Mets righthander Matt Harvey, have only begrudgingly accepted the innings ceilings that have become standard.

But Wheeler is part of a growing generation of pitchers who have grown accustomed to limits.

"It probably varies from pitcher to pitcher,'' Wheeler said. "Of course, I'm young and I want to pitch as long as I can. And with them sort of limiting innings and pitches and all that stuff, I think it will help me out down the road. I'm not mad about it, honestly.''

Wheeler's perspective is shaped partly by the fate of his older brother, Adam, who was a pitcher in the Yankees' organization until a torn labrum ended his pro career.

"He got overworked in high school and even before that,'' said Wheeler, who likely will be shut down at about 170 innings. "He threw hard as crap, too.''

As the season has gone on, Wheeler's fastball velocity has sagged, a function of pushing past his previous limits. His fastball averaged more than 95 mph in three of his first four starts, but that has happened once in his last eight outings.

On occasion, Wheeler's fastball has touched the upper 90s, but he mostly has worked closer to the low 90s.

"I'm fine pitching at that,'' Wheeler said. "But I'm used to pitching at 95 to 97. Right now I'm 92 to 95, maybe. When you don't have your best velo, you've got to rely on movement, hitting your spots a little bit more. Your off-speed you've got to rely on.''

The lessons haven't stopped for Wheeler, who sees the benefits of pushing through. "I've learned more stuff this year than any other year,'' he said.

And even with fatigue setting in, he said it has been easy to find the motivation to power through until he reaches his limit.

As the Mets enter the homestretch of the season, the clubhouse features many of the core players expected to revive the franchise. Harvey's locker is only a few stalls from Wheeler's. Not far away, catcher Travis d'Arnaud has taken up residence now that he's taken over starting duties from veteran John Buck.

"You're ready to go home and sit on the couch and relax,'' Wheeler said. "Some days you have that moment where you're like, 'Man, I wish it was the end of September right now.' But you can't think like that, because in a couple of years, we're going to be in first place at this point, getting ready for the playoffs and going full stride. We'll be ready to go.''

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