Zack Wheeler’s Evolving Mechanics

Zack Wheeler had his best start of 2013 Tuesday in Reno, NV, holding the Aces to one run on five hits in 6.2 innings. He struck out eight and did not walk a batter until his 27th and final opponent of the game.

He told MiLB.com:

“I was lifting my leg and rotating my shoulders and when we looked at the video, we realized I was rotating too much instead of keeping my shoulders square to the plate…. It’s new right now, but I did it all last year. I had success with it, keeping my shoulders square,” he said. “But it’s new right now to me, so I just have to keep them square and take it from there.”

Why this helps:

“It was hard to pick up the target, everything was going to the wrong side. I keep my shoulders square and it’s allowed me to throw downhill and stay sharp.”

Wheeler and Las Vegas 51s Pitching Coach Randy St. Clair compared his motion this year to last year in AA Binghamton. Wheeler told the New York Post.

Once you see something like that, you have to make an adjustment,” Wheeler said. “We finally got some video in from last year and compared it to this year. We immediately saw the tweak I needed to make. … It sharpened up my off-speed pitches and helped my fastball command.

Wheeler has gone back and forth the last few years with his shoulder rotation and direction.

To give you a feel what this looks like, I pulled some stills from Wheeler’s motion yesterday.

 

Pre-Leg Kick

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.53.43 AM

 

The Leg Kick

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.53.54 AM

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.57.18 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are actually two different pitches, but they look extremely similar – which is good. Note that in the photo on the right, Wheeler’s front left shoulder is just slightly tucked away from home plate so that he’s showing the hitter a little bit of the back side of his jersey.

From the Front

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.56.26 AM

You can see this from the front – high leg kick, high hands, very slight shoulder turn.

 

Heading Home

Now look what happens when Wheeler breaks his hand and begins driving toward the plate.

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.54.55 AM

 

There’s the tiniest bit of shoulder turn, but his shoulders are basically on top of his hips.

His shoulders probably feel “square” to third base basically all the way through and the turn is minimal.

 

One of the more interesting things about this development is that when the Mets acquired Wheeler in the summer of 2011, Wheeler’s control improved dramatically late that summer. He explained at the time that it was a question of returning to his high school mechanics which included a higher leg kick and higher hands. The Giants had tried to slow him down and keep him square all the way through and he felt that had taken a little movement away form his fastball and command from all of his pitches.

Note that in the link above, the higher leg kick comes with a more pronounced hip and shoulder turn away from home plate where Wheeler would show the batter the back of his front shoulder and jersey (at the 0:52 mark). Now, Wheeler has again moved away from that toward a more middle ground.

So the timeline, as I understand it:
2009 HS – loose, swinging motion, with high leg kick. All kinds of moving parts. Big weird step towards 1B out of the windup.
2010 SF (Augusta) – Giant step to 1B side eliminated. Giants tried to simplify Wheeler’s mechanics with a smaller leg kick, and less shoulder turn. He walked 14.5% of the batters he faced in the SAL. They also brought his hands in, which was positive.
Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 12.16.12 PM2011 SF (San Jose) – Wheeler was walking over 12% of his opposing batters. Frustrated with what the Giants were teaching him, he sought out his high school coach and mechanics and began reintegrating his higher leg kick immediately before (two starts) the trade with the Mets.
One major difference between 2011 and 2013: his back leg. He’s pitching much, much taller now. Compare the back leg bend from May of 2011 at right (yuck) to the leg kick above. Optioned to Fresno does a great job compiling video of Wheeler’s adjustments from his high school time through his Giants’ tenure.
2011 NYM (St. Lucie) – Wheeler uses a loosely adapted version of his high school mechanics with: high leg kick, high hands, pronounced hip and shoulder turn. Wheeler walks 4.5% of the opposing batters he faces.  Video here. The reason he adopted a shoulder/hip turn was to keep his front side from flying open and more closely matched with his arm – this is about the most common issue with young pitchers. There was still too much movement here to be repeatable enough.
2012 NYM (AA Bingo) – The Mets keep Wheeler’s high leg kick, but begin to encourage him (again) to tone down the shoulder and hip turn. (It’s still there in Spring Training video.) He walks 9% of the opposing batters he faces in AA (43 of 474) on his was to a 3.26 ERA. Promoted to AAA Buffalo at the end of the year, Wheeler’s walk rate spikes to 11.9% in 33 innings.
2013 NYM (AAA Las Vegas) – Wheeler and Wally Backman say Wheeler was rushing in his first start. Video here. In sum, taller at leg kick. Less shoulder swing. Wheeler discussed his effort to keep his front shoulder on line towards home plate here.

 

Zack Wheeler in 2013 in AAA looks a little bit different that 2011 Wheeler in advanced-A either with the Giants or the Mets and very different than 2009 Zack Wheeler in high school. This is development.

I’m not ready to say after one (very) good start in Las Vegas, that Wheeler has found his control once and for all. However, his motion, the one he showed Tuesday, now seems simpler and much more repeatable than it has been ever before. He still has the high leg kick, which he likes so much. He stays taller longer. Just a very little shoulder turn at the top of his motion allows him to stay closed and online toward the plate rather than flying open.

Wheeler can throw hard out of any motion he has used in the last few years. However, in order to throw the ball where he wants, with his fastball or breaking ball, he will need to find a motion that he is comfortable with and can repeat.