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Strikeouts up, ERA too for Mets' Zack Wheeler

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler checks the scoreboard

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler checks the scoreboard after the top of the fourth on Saturday, June 14, 2014. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Zack Wheeler strikes out more batters and induces more groundballs this season than he did as a rookie last year. He also walks fewer batters per nine innings.

Those things are very good for the Mets' righthander.

Yet, in 14 starts and 78 innings, Wheeler is 2-7 with a 4.38 ERA, which is nearly one run higher than the 3.42 ERA he posted last season in 17 starts and 100 innings.

That's what has the 24-year-old very annoyed.

"I feel like this whole year, it has been nothing but hits like that one against the pitcher or hits in the hole and it's just getting frustrating," said Wheeler while he sat at his locker at Citi Field on Sunday.

One day earlier, he allowed four earned runs, six hits -- including a bloop RBI single by pitcher Jesse Hahn -- and three walks in five innings as the Mets lost to the Padres, 5-0. He struck out four.

What really irked Wheeler was the way the Padres reached base against him Saturday, and ultimately scored. It was a microcosm of his entire season so far, he said, and some statistics support his claim.

For example, Hahn hit a soft fly to rightfield that dropped in for a single and scored Cameron Maybin from second to make it 4-0 in the fourth. Wheeler said he left that ball up, but the play itself was a product of the ball falling where one of his defenders wasn't.

Batting Average on Balls In Play, or BABIP, measures how many balls in play against a pitcher go for hits, excluding home runs. An average BABIP is around .300. If very few balls in play fall for hits, a pitcher won't allow many runs to score and will have a low ERA.

Wheeler's BABIP this season is .335, meaning that when a ball has been put in play against him, there's been a good chance at it resulting in a hit. His BABIP was .279 last season. The spike could be attributed to defense, luck, or slight skill changes -- or a combination of the three.

For Wheeler, however, his other statistics indicate that his poor ERA more likely could be a product of bad luck. Wheeler's groundball percentage is 55.1 percent, up 12 percent from last year, according to Fangraphs. He's giving up fewer line drives, which are deadly to pitchers: 17.8 percent this season versus 23.5 percent in 2013.

And he's striking out 9.12 batters per nine innings, a solid increase from his 7.56 mark last year.

"My groundball rate and my strikeout rate are both through the roof," Wheeler said, "but I have nothing to show for it, really."

Nothing particularly good, at least.

"When you have good strikeout numbers and a very good groundball rate, that usually means you have good everything else," Wheeler said. "But it hasn't happened that way for me."

Balls are finding holes, but another big part of the problem for Wheeler has been falling behind in the count and his inability to make pitches in key situations, especially with men on base.

According to FanGraphs, he's stranding about 67 percent of runners on base -- a 10-percent drop from last year. Opponents' batting average with runners in scoring position against Wheeler is .360, an incredibly high number.

Wheeler, who held batters to a .173 average with RISP last year, said he didn't all of a sudden forget how to get guys out, though.

"I don't think the mental side of that kind of stuff ever changes because I hate when guys really get past second base," Wheeler said. "You try to avoid that so you have to make your pitches and I've been up in the zone after I've fallen behind. But, also, honestly, the whole year has felt like it's been balls in the holes."

Wheeler made it clear, though, that he's not making any excuses.

"I definitely need to command my pitches better at times," Wheeler said. I need to do a better job of that."

Wheeler also has shown a vast swing based on time between starts. When on typical four days rest this season, he has a 2.85 ERA in seven games, allowing 31 hits in 41 innings. When on five or more days rest, Wheeler has a 6.08 ERA in seven games, giving up 46 hits in 37 innings.

"Sometimes you hate this game," Wheeler said, "and sometimes you love it."

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