The Mets’ vaunted rotation has a new weakest link: Zack Wheeler.
The Yankees rocked Wheeler for nine runs (five earned) and 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings Tuesday in the opener of the teams’ doubleheader, a 12-5 Mets loss. That matched his shortest outing of the season, plus set a new high for runs.
Wheeler’s mess included a few defensive flubs by the Mets, a couple of bloops that fell in and a bunch of well-earned Yankees rockets, including home runs by Gio Urshela and Luke Voit in the fourth. The latter came after Todd Frazier’s two-out throwing error extended the inning.
“Fastball was about the only thing I had going for me. That and the curveball,” Wheeler said. “Physically, I felt fine. It was a tough one to swallow. I made some pitches when I had to. They also hit some good pitches and I left some balls over the plate. A little mix of everything.”
Said manager Mickey Callaway: “If you’re getting hurt on your mistakes, you’re probably making more than just those two or three.”
Wheeler’s ERA is 4.87, ninth-worst among 84 qualified pitchers. He has allowed 13 homers, one fewer than his total last season.
A major reason for Wheeler’s struggles: He is worse in a game’s most important moments. Heading into his start Tuesday, opposing hitters had a .560 OPS against Wheeler when the bases are empty. But when Wheeler had at least one baserunner one, that OPS shot up to .892.
Put another way: Wheeler turns hitters into Juan Lagares (. 538 OPS) when the bases are empty. With one or more runner on, they’re Michael Conforto (. 887).
“That usually happens,” Callaway said of Wheeler’s wacky splits.
The league-average OPS difference for bases empty versus men on is .045. Wheeler’s career average is .065. This year, .332.
“Out of the stretch [when runners are on base], I haven’t been that good this year,” Wheeler said. “That’s probably what I’ll focus on next bullpen, just repeating mechanics and executing pitches in the bullpen, so I’ll be ready to go next time and get that ironed out.
“Nothing [un]comfortable. It’s just the results. The results aren’t as good as they are out of the windup.”
Some of Wheeler’s peripheral numbers suggest he hasn’t been all that different from his 2018 form. He is striking out and walking batters, plus getting ground balls, at about the same rates he did last year, for example. He is giving up more hard contact, but not much.
Wheeler said his poor performances surprise him, because they don’t match the vibes from his pregame warmups and even early in games. He feels like he is doing better than he was early last year, when he had a 4.98 ERA through June 12.
“Physically and mechanically I’m feeling really good right now,” Wheeler said. “The results haven’t been there, but I feel great. I just wish the results would come with that.”
Last year, of course, Wheeler put it all together, including the oft-referenced 1.68 ERA in the second half. That precedent offers him hope for this summer.
“I thought today was going to be that day, because in the bullpen I felt great, first inning I felt great,” Wheeler said. “I had a feeling that I was going to start doing what I did the second half last year. But it just hasn’t been there so far. I’m kind of waiting for it to come. I think if I iron out the stretch, get that figured out, that’ll definitely help.”