The New York media took to the back pages when Jacob DeGrom and his agent Jeff Berry of CAA Sports notified the Mets they wouldn’t discuss a long-term extension if talks extend to Opening Day.
All eyes this spring will be on DeGrom and the Mets brass to see if negotiations intensify and a long term partnership ensues. All of Mets nation are hoping the Mets can agree with DeGrom, but there is another Mets starter with less contractual time left than DeGrom that the Mets should strongly consider locking down. I’m talking about Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler, 28, was acquired by the Mets in July of 2011 for long-time Met Carlos Beltran. Wheeler made a memorable debut in 2013 in a day-night doubleheader with Matt Harvey in his hometown of Atlanta. He went 6.0 innings with seven strikeouts, without allowing a run. Wheeler had a solid first full season going 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA with an especially strong second half where he posted a 3.04 ERA in 77 innings with a .223 average against. Wheeler seemed to find his groove and paired with the surprising emergence of Jacob Degrom and with Matt Harvey coming back from Tommy John, Mets fans were optimistic about the team’s rotation going forward. The problem was, Wheeler was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow early in spring, and ended up missing two full seasons. Wheeler came back in 2017 where he battled through more arm injuries while producing subpar numbers going 3-7 with a 5.21 ERA in only 86.1 innings. The Mets didn’t know who they had with Wheeler entering the 2018 season due to his injury history and poor performance the year prior.
What the Mets received from Zack Wheeler in 2018 was a 4.1 WAR player — going 12-7 with a 3.31 ERA over 182.1 innings. Wheeler, overshadowed by Jacob DeGrom’s outstanding CY-Young season, was arguably the most dominant pitcher following the All-Star Break. Let’s take a look at Wheeler’s second-half numbers compared to the top-3 NL CY-Young voters of last year.
Wheeler was consistently dealing in the second half, finishing the season with nine quality starts (6-IP with three earned runs or less) out of 11 games started. Wheeler’s ERA was the fourth lowest in the league in the second half, his average against was third best, he was second in slugging percentage against and second in WHIP. Wheeler was CY-Young caliber in the second half, and there are many signs of why this isn’t a fluke.
Dave Eiland was hired as Mets pitching coach replacing Dan Warthen in 2018. Eiland preached to his pitchers in 2018 to throw on the inner-half of the plate to make hitters uncomfortable, stating to Kevin Kiernan of the New York Post ” There is one stat I hope we lead the league in, and that’s hit batters.” Although the Mets didn’t lead the league in this stat (amassing 71 hit batters, which were 8th highest in the league), we did see the Mets starters pitch in more. This is especially true with Zack Wheeler in the second half, as hit heat maps show his fastball is consistently thrown on the inner half of the strike zone.
In addition to incorporating a new philosophy on how to attack hitters, Wheeler added a split-finger to his four-pitch repertoire. Wheeler’s split-finger was used 7.8% of the time allowing him to limit the use of his fastball from 61.8% of the time to 58.2% of the time. Wheeler’s split-finger had the most significant swing and miss percentage of his five pitches at 14.8% and had the highest o-swing% (swings at pitches outside of the strike zone) at 47.5%. Wheeler attributed his success on MLB Network’s Hot Stove by saying “I think it was just healthy,…I was able to actually concentrate on all my bullpens.” The ability to remain healthy allowed Wheeler to establish a routine and to work on things, such as adding a new splitfinger, rather than working on showing management that he was healthy.
Also looking at Wheeler’s windup in 2018 compared to years prior, he seemed to be in more in control of his windup, removing the over the head beginning he displayed in 2017 and slowing his delivery. These changes to his delivery could attest to how Wheeler had his lowest walks per nine of his career at 2.71.
Wheeler showed genuine signs of being an ace in 2018. Right now is an opportune time for the Mets to extend a long term offer. Wheeler is still young, and with his track record of injury, the Mets could most likely get a team friendly deal done, in which Wheeler gets guaranteed money, and the Mets would still have the financial flexibility to extend DeGrom.
The Mets would be best fitted by trying to manufacture a similar contract in which the Phillies used to extend Aaron Nola, and offer a four year, 50 million dollar contract. The Mets top 3 of DeGrom, Syndergaard, and Wheeler is the team’s backbone, and the Mets should invest in their team’s strength.
Photo: Charles Wenzelberg: NY Post