Zack Wheeler learns you can't rely on the fastball alone
David LennonDavid Lennon
David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since
Zack Wheeler only had an hour or two to celebrate his first major-league victory a week ago at Turner Field. A pat on the back from Terry Collins, a beer shower by his teammates, and then it was off to Las Vegas.
The quick turnaround was a roster trick, not a reflection of his performance, but it probably was the best thing that could have happened.
Nothing like a swift dose of humility to make a rookie appreciate the little things, so when Wheeler returned for Tuesday's encore against the White Sox, it was beneficial for him to have a short memory.
The message still ringing in his head?
Nice job, son. Now get better.
That's the No. 1 priority for a 23-year-old on the rise, and if Wheeler is going to approach Matt Harvey status, he'll need more than a 97-mph fastball. As of right now, his other weapons, mainly a slider and curve, are still developing.
Even worse, when Wheeler did try to mix things up in Tuesday night's 5-4 loss to the White Sox, Dan Warthen said afterward that his star pupil tipped his pitches. In essence, the Chicago hitters knew what was coming by studying his arm angles, which goes a long way toward explaining the one strikeout in 51/3 innings. "I still have a lot of work to do," Wheeler said.
That's to be expected. After all, Tuesday was only his second major-league start, and the most noticeable jump for Harvey came between the end of last season and the beginning of this one.
On Tuesday, Wheeler's opening pitch was a 97-mph fastball for a called strike, which he then followed up with a curve that locked up Alejandro De Aza for strike two. It was an unhittable combo, a 1-2 punch that showed the ceiling of Wheeler's talents.
The tricky part? It's difficult to repeat on a consistent basis, and Wheeler now has to figure out a better way to disguise it as well. Of his 109 pitches, he threw an equal number of curve balls (16) and sliders (16) with a fastball that averaged slightly over 96 mph and maxed at 98, according to PITCH f/x.
And yet, the White Sox only swung and missed five times all night. Alex Rios was the lone K victim, whiffing badly on a 1-and-2 curve ball that ended the fifth inning.
Maybe it's unfair to keep holding up Harvey as the example, but he's the one most readily available. Last season, according to FanGraphs.com, Harvey threw fastballs 65.4 percent of the time, which is to be expected for a hard-thrower leaning on his security blanket. This year, as hitters have tried to adjust to his fastball, he's cut that back to an even 55 percent, and increased his average velocity to 95.6 mph from 94.7.
Harvey also has used his slider 19.7 percent of the time -- a nearly seven percent spike from last season -- and his curve ball 13.5 percent, up from 9.6 percent. As good as his changeup as been, Harvey actually has used that less than a year ago, but still around 12 percent of his pitches.
The lesson here is an obvious one, backed up by the numbers. Few pitchers arrive as a finished product. Last week, Wheeler just kept gunning fastballs at the Braves -- 71.5 percent of the time -- and they kept swinging. On Tuesday, the White Sox let his pitch count skyrocket, partly because they had an idea what was coming.
It was Conor Gillaspie's 10-pitch at-bat that finished Wheeler in the sixth. After jumping ahead 0-and-2 on fastballs, Wheeler tried everything -- curve balls in the dirt, sliders -- but Gillaspie fought him off for the walk.
The Mets took Wheeler off the hook for the loss, and he could consider this another lesson learned. It was less enjoyable than the first, but just as important. And in the long run, probably more so.