Zack Wheeler’s Walks – A Problem?

Wheeler (Baron)A few hours after Matt Harvey was done dominating the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on Friday night, Zack Wheeler took to the mound in Las Vegas and walked six batters before departing with one out in the fifth inning. This is a problem.

In his four starts, Wheeler has walked 12 batters in 18.1 innings, tied for second in the PCL. He has walked 14% of the opposing batters he has faced a rate that is sixth in the PCL. Over his four starts, he walked three batters in 3.1 innings, three batters in 5.1 innings, zero batters in 5.1 innings and six in 4.1 on Friday night.  If Wheeler is to become a successful big league pitcher, he must cut his walk rate down, at least towards the Major League average of 8.5%.

Mets fans might recall that Matt Harvey struggled with his command early in his AAA tenure with the Buffalo Bisons in 2012. Over the weekend, a couple of fans asked me to compare the beginning to Wheeler’s 2013 with Las Vegas to Harvey’s in Buffalo. I will, but two issues jump out. First, Wheeler made six starts in AAA last year with the Bisons. Thus, his first four starts in 2013 are seven-through-10 in AAA overall. Truly, then, the comparable starts for Wheeler at least by time of AAA exposure, to Harvey is to compare Wheeler’s first four starts in 2013, to Harvey’s May 8-24 run in 2012. The issue then becomes comparing a number of Harvey starts in relatively fair ballparks in Grwinnett, Buffalo and Charlotte to Wheeler’s in Sacramento, Fresno, Colorado Springs and Las Vegas.

So, without further delay, lets look at the numbers.

The first set of charts compares Wheeler’s 2013 to both Matt Harvey’s first four 2012 starts in AAA and Harvey’s seventh-10th AAA starts.

Four Starts – Basic

ERAG/GSIPHRERHRBBSOHBPWP
Wheeler 20134.914/418.32013101122110
Harvey First four Starts 20126.634/419.02417141111914
Harvey Starts 7-10 20123.474/423.332099392402

 

Four Starts – Advanced

BB/9SO/9SO/BBHR/9H/9R/9BB%SO%TBF
Wheeler 20135.910.31.80.59.86.414.124.785
Harvey First four Starts 20125.29.01.70.511.48.112.221.190
Harvey Starts 7-10 20123.59.32.71.27.73.59.425.096

What do we learn? Wheeler’s start to 2013 actually looks fairly similar to Harvey’s early season work in 2012 with a better ERA in a tougher environment for pitchers. To be fair however, Harvey also had to deal with some nasty cold, which made pitching difficult in his first few starts in Buffalo. Both guys had strikeout rates above 21% and walk rates between 12 and 14%. Harvey, by rate, had fewer strikeouts and fewer walks and gave up more runs. However, comparing Wheeler’s start to Harvey’s May 2012 is less charitable to Wheeler. By that point in AAA, Harvey had sliced his walk rate down to 9.4% while upping his strikeout rate to 25%.

By age, Harvey was a little bit older for the time period under examination here, but the issue is fast becoming a wash. He was 23 on Opening Day, 2012. Wheeler pitched all of 2012 as a 22-year old, but will be 23 on May 30, 2013. Of course, Wheeler was a first round pick by the Giants in 2009 (6th overall) out of high school, whereas Harvey was a Mets’ first round pick by the Mets out of the University of North Carolina in 2010 (7th overall).

Four starts is a pretty poor way to judge a pitcher. (Unless we’re talking about Harvey’s start to his 2013 season, in which he has a 0.93 ERA and a 402 ERA+ in which case it’s the perfect time to declare four starts the ideal representation of a pitcher’s talent/sarcasm font.) So, lets expand this and look at the two pitchers’ cumulative AAA performance in their first 10 starts. The raw numbers will be unkind to Wheeler, who has to deal with the Pacific Coast League.

Wheeler vs. Harvey – First 10 – Basic

ERAG/GSIPHRERHRBBSOHBPWP
Wheeler First 10 AAA Starts3.8610/1051.34326223285213
Harvey First 10 AAA Starts4.2210/1053.335126254225127

 

Wheeler vs. Harvey – First 10 – Advanced

BB/9SO/9SO/BBHR/9H/9R/9BB%SO%TBF
Wheeler First 10 AAA Starts4.99.11.90.57.54.612.823.7219
Harvey First 10 AAA Starts3.78.62.30.78.64.49.622.3229

 

Over his first 10 AAA starts, Wheeler has actually allowed the same number of runs as Harvey (26), while Harvey threw two more innings. However, four of the runs Wheeler has allowed have been unearned compared to just one for Harvey. That discrepancy accounts for the entire difference in ERA between the two. Wheeler also allowed fewer hits. The two had very similar strikeout rates. But again, Wheeler was walking more batters 12.8% of opponents compared to Harvey’s 9.6%. Also notable, Harvey threw seven wild pitches compared to Wheeler’s one.

If you want to go back further to their AA tenures, Wheeler walked 11.9% of the batters he faced in AA, compared to Harvey’s 8.8%.

 

The Bottom Line
Wheeler walked too many batters at AA. He is walking too many batters in AAA. Matt Harvey went through similar walk issues early in his AAA tenure. However, by the time he had as many starts as Wheeler has had now at the level, he was walking fewer hitters, and his performance was ahead of Wheeler’s. This is painfully obvious, but if Wheeler is to be a successful major league starter, he must cut his walk rate down. This is the category to check first in every one of Wheeler’s box scores moving forward.