Zack Wheeler pitched the best game of his career and earned his second victory of the season as the New York Mets defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1. The young right-hander appeared much more polished than in any game this season, using a wide variety of pitches and locations, and most importantly throwing strikes, while for the most part avoiding the hitting zone. Wheeler also displayed a new weapon against the left-handed heavy Phillies, using his slider on the outer half of the plate.
During the Mets’ broadcast of the game, Ron Darling mentioned Wheeler’s propensity to slow his arm down when throwing changeups. The only way that pitch works is when the arm speed matches the arm speed of a fastball, so that the ball will appear faster than it actually is and wreck the batter’s timing. Wheeler does have a wide and developing repertoire, but his changeup is not his best pitch. In fact, it is Wheeler’s most infrequently thrown pitch, and has yielded the worst results of any.
As a right-handed thrower, it is important for Wheeler to have something off-speed he can throw on the outer half of the plate to lefties. His curveball, which is shaping up to be a great pitch, is much more effective against right-handed batters because it is much harder to locate and judge from that side of the plate. His four-seam fastball plays just as well against either side, but Wheeler’s lack of an out pitch versus left-handed hitters has resulted in a gigantic platoon split. Lefties have hit 36 points better than righties, and their OPS against him is .782, well above average.
Against Philadelphia, Wheeler got off to a terrific start. His first six outs came via the strikeout. Four of those strikeouts were left-handers, while three of those lefties struck out on sliders away. Wheeler’s slider comes in at around 90 miles per hour, a bit harder than his change but still a slower than his four-seamer. If Wheeler is having trouble keeping his arm speed consistent on the changeup, the slider is a perfect alternative.
Thrown away, the rotation causes it to essentially spin in place. It sits down on the outside edge of the plate. Much of the arm’s velocity goes into creating spin on the ball, so it still has to be thrown hard. The result is batters seeing a hard pitch away that looks like it is going to stay outside before slipping back into the strike zone. By the end of his evening, Wheeler had struck out seven left-handed batters.
Wheeler has actually pitched better than his ERA and record would indicate. If he is able to consistently use his slider to help him improve against lefties he may start to pitch to his hype and potential more regularly. His physical tools are already there, and his last start was a big step forward strategically. Wheeler is showing he can learn and grow as a pitcher. With some big left-handed bats in the National League East, the Mets will be thankful Wheeler has figured out a way to confuse them.
Commentary by Brian Moore
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports Writer covering New York Baseball
Member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America