DENVER — Zack Wheeler, pain-free for the first time in more than a half-decade, is throwing the fastest fastballs of his life. And that makes him a little nervous.
“It kind of worries me,” Wheeler said. “It does. But, you know, whatever. Now is the time to pitch. I don’t want to miss any more time. I missed two years — at once. That wasn’t very fun at all. Worry about that later and say, here it is.”
“Here it is” could be the motto for the mental makeover pitching coach Dave Eiland and manager Mickey Callaway are trying to give Wheeler, a psychological adjustment that helps his physical gifts manifest themselves in a way the Mets have long been waiting for.
The short version: They want Wheeler to be more aggressive.
It seems to be working. Wheeler’s numbers on the season aren’t anything special (4.82 ERA, 1.39 WHIP), but he’s trending in the right direction. He has a 3.68 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in the past month heading into his start Friday at Citi Field against the Dodgers. That makes him a part of the Mets’ larger rotation turnaround: a 3.12 ERA through Tuesday — second best in baseball behind the Cubs (2.96) — since May 20.
Coinciding with Wheeler’s effectiveness has been a velocity increase. His average fastball in June is 96.95 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, a website that tabulates such data drawn from MLB’s pitch-tracking technology. That’s the hardest he has ever thrown consistently and is up from 95.22 mph in April. Wheeler has touched 99 mph in five of his past six starts, and he even hit triple digits — 100.02 — with one pitch against the Cubs a couple of weeks ago.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I had that in me anymore,” Wheeler said.
The velocity bump isn’t the result of any particular difference physically, though feeling healthy aside from normal poststart aches and pains helps. The tools Wheeler has now are more or less the same tools that made him a first-round pick in 2009, the Mets’ prize in the Carlos Beltran trade with the Giants in 2011, and one of the top prospects in baseball upon his debut in 2013.
Eiland and Callaway, in their first season with the Mets, saw in Wheeler what coaches and talent evaluators of years past saw. They’re helping him better tap into it with a simple message: Don’t think so much.
“I talked to him about being committed to every pitch,” Eiland said. “I said, for example, if you’ve got 95 in the tank, without coming out of your delivery and without being violent, what’s the sense in throwing 91, 92? Be committed to every pitch. Attack with every pitch. When he does that, the velocity is going to go up.
“I’m not telling him to throw and turn around to look at the board [and check the velocity reading]. But let it go. You’ve got it in there.”
Wheeler said he had a habit of trying to pace himself, holding back from throwing quite as hard early in the game in the hopes that he would have the energy to last late.
Callaway wants his starters to shift away from that thought process, and it’s a point he has hammered since spring training: Go as hard as you can, as long as you can, and when you’re tired, you’re tired, that’s OK. (It seemed like a particularly sound strategy in March, when the Mets appeared to have a bevy of late-inning relievers.)
“[Callaway] told me, ‘If you go five innings, who gives a crap?’” Wheeler said. “You’re still going five innings, giving up no runs. That’s a good start, especially these days.”
And here’s the trick, via Eiland: “Usually when you do that [pitch aggressively], you’re going to throw less pitches and go deeper into the game, because you’re going to get quicker outs and not have as many runners on base. And we’re seeing that happening for him.”
Wheeler’s innings per start in his first seven: 5.43. During his recent stretch of effectiveness, it’s up to 6.11.
Consider it making up for lost time. In his next couple of starts, Wheeler will pass his combined 2015-17 innings total (86 1/3). He’s 28, so even though throwing harder makes him nervous, he tries not to think about it too much. He’s missed enough time.
“I feel like it puts more pressure on your elbow. I want to avoid that,” Wheeler said. “But whatever comes out, comes out. That’s what’s coming out right now.”