Maggie Wiggin, Contributor
Zack Wheeler’s 2013 season was strong for a rookie, as he put up a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts.
Here are a few important areas where he can make improvements and take the next big step forward in his development…
One issue Wheeler struggled with last season was efficiency. He threw an average of 4.00 pitches to every batter he faced, well above the league average for starters of 3.81. This kept his average start to under six innings, which was just about league average, but fewer than you want to see from a young power arm with his potential. By being more aggressive and getting quicker outs, Wheeler can go deeper into games and help preserve the bullpen.
Another big step for Wheeler will be lowering his walk rate, which was well above league average. Paired with a below-average strikeout rate, this is a recipe for trouble and only a luck-fueled low BABIP kept him clear of it last year.
Obviously, the running theme here is that Wheeler needs to throw more strikes, climbing from a below-average rate of 61 percent last season to, ideally, something around 65 percent. A lot of factors will contribute to his ability to this, including more confidence in facing big league batters and ongoing development of his curveball.
Wheeler’s best model for making these improvements? Unsurprisingly, that would be one Matt Harvey. Though he was an exceptional player from day one, and it’s unrealistic to expect Wheeler to reach Harvey’s stratospheric ceiling, Harvey made these same adjustments in transitioning from a strong debut to a Cy Young-caliber sophomore season. His walk rate in 2012, on par with Wheeler’s, dropped by more than half and he increased the average length of his starts by almost a full inning. Like Wheeler in his rookie year, Harvey started out throwing strikes at a below-average rate, but improved strength, confidence, and stellar control of his offspeed and breaking pitches made a world of difference.
The good news is that, like Harvey in 2013, Wheeler has already shown signs of improvement this spring, getting ahead of batters and challenging them rather than pitching around them. Small sample size warnings apply, but he’s walked just 3 of the 60 batters he has faced and he’s passing the eye test with flying colors.
Will Wheeler be the next Harvey? Only in Mets fans’ wildest dreams. But if he takes the step forward he’s poised to, he will be a more-than-worthy No. 2 starter and a key piece of the team’s rotation for years to come.