The Mets are Being “Conservative” With Zack Wheeler…But Shoulders are Scary

Wheeler Vegas HeadThe news, as you already know, if you’re reading this blog is that Zack Wheeler is heading to New York to visit the Hospital for Special Surgery for an examination of his sore right collarbone.

Mets assistant GM John Ricco as quoted by multiple sources:

“I think we’re being a little bit conservative given who it is and making sure our guys see him right away.”

“It was nothing that happened during the last outing. It was something that he felt a couple of days after. It’s near his right clavicle. That’s all I have right now until we have a doctor see him tomorrow. I think we’re being a little bit conservative given who it is.”

According to Wheeler’s agent, Al Goetz, as reported by Marc Carig in Newsday, the exam is “totally precautionary” and the issue has “[b]een more of an annoyance than anything else for the last couple of starts. He could have continued and [it] wasn’t affecting his performance.”

If Wheeler has really been dealing with this soreness for the last few starts, it has corresponded with his best pitching of 2013. In his last three starts,  over 20 innings, he has a 1.35 ERA and 19 strikeouts against three walks while holding opponents to .192/.224./233 line in 76 plate appearances.

(So, I recommend more clavicle soreness for all pitchers. Ok, bad idea.)

In all seriousness, it’s in everyone’s interest to downplay the seriousness of this right now. And it might be relatively unimportant in the long run or even in the short run if Wheeler misses just one start and his shoulder feels fine. However, that seems unlikely given that the Mets have flown Wheeler from Las Vegas back to New York.

It’s something. The collarbone in essentially the top of the shoulder. Pitchers need their shoulders healthy to pitch (duh!). Any discomfort in Wheeler’s shoulder is ominous. Wheeler’s previous health issues in the minors have been limited to hand and blister issues. I cannot help but wonder if what is being described as “collarbone” for now, a relatively unusual diagnosis for baseball players, is associated with other issues in Wheeler’s shoulder.

Do not panic yet. But hey, lets see some MRIs.

The Zack Wheeler Question

Wheeler Vegas HeadAndy Martino has a fun piece for his Baseball Insider Blog at the Daily News about Zack Wheeler in which different Mets officials say slightly different thing about Zack Wheeler.

Unidentified person 1 on Wheeler and his last two excellent starts:

“Oh, the timetable has accelerated a lot,” said one club official. “He’s had two good ones, and if he has two more, you’ll see him up here. If all goes well we’re talking about June 1 at the latest.”

And number 2:

A separate high-ranking team source characterized June 1 as “a little aggressive. We’re still taking it start-to-start.”

Martino’s sources downplayed the importance of Wheeler’s Super-Two status relative to the pitcher’s overall readiness.

Wheeler has been great in his last two starts: 12.2 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 12 K, 0.71 ERA. However, in his first five starts, he owned a 5.70 ERA and opponents were hitting a robust .283/.385/.500 against him with 15 walks in 23.2 innings. That’s a pretty sharp divide.

If he throws like he did in April – that is struggling with his command – in his next few starts, he won’t be in the big leagues on June 1. If he shoves it, and hits his spots, he will be. This is not that hard. The minor leagues are for a guy like Zack Wheeler, learning. Yes, he will learn at the big league level, but he should be as prepared as possible when he gets there.

Even Wheeler’s own boosters, like Las Vegas manager Wally Backman want to see him make at least a few more AAA starts. “Personally, I think if he has a couple of more starts like his last start he’ll be headed to the big leagues, and rightfully so…”

Wheeler has talked about the mechanical adjustments he made which has helped his location. The 2013 Mets are not going to the playoffs. If Wheeler has a few more dominating starts, he will be in the big leagues. And soon Mets fans will have another reason to watch on days when Matt Harvey is not throwing.

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

“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.

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

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


Four Starts – Advanced

Wheeler 20135.910.
Harvey First four Starts 20125.
Harvey Starts 7-10 20123.

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

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


Wheeler vs. Harvey – First 10 – Advanced

Wheeler First 10 AAA Starts4.
Harvey First 10 AAA Starts3.


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.

AAA Tuesday: Zack Wheeler and his Fastball Command; Josh Satin Goes Big Fly

AAA: @ Fresno Grizzlies 4, Las Vegas 51s 1

Wheeler (Baron)The Zack Wheeler show made its second stop of the 2013 season in Fresno on Tuesday. The results: 5.1 IP, 8 H 4 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K. Wheeler threw 68% of his pitches (62 of 93) for strikes. The 22 year old has now walked six batters in 8.2 innings this year a rate of 14%.

For some reason, despite installing the new Flash player, my computer was not cooperating last night, and I could not pull up the video feed of Wheeler’s start and the 51s. Oh well. Marc Carig in Newsday points out that five of the eight hits Wheeler allowed came on two strike counts. Carig reports that this was “an indication of the pitcher’s difficulties in putting away opposing hitters. He could also blame his lack of fastball command, which was enough to get him in trouble despite secondary offerings that were mostly sharp.”

The Fresno Bee had Wheeler regularly touching 97 mph. Carig’s observations about Wheeler’s command issues mesh with the tweets of friends of the site and twitter-aholics like Jeff Paternostro and Daniel Wexler. Wheeler’s fastball command issues are not new.

CF Juan Lagares had a pair of singles and a pair of strikeouts. With three-straight two-hit games, he’s up to .296/.321/.333 (8-for-27) this year in his six games.

Meanwhile, Josh Satin remains totally locked in. The 28-year old 1B was 2-for-4 with a homer, his second of the year. He’s had multiple hits in every single one of his six games while bopping at a .480/.519/.800 rate to start the year. So that’s nice.

My old friend, and Fresno Grizzlies broadcaster Doug Greenwald passed along his call of Satin’s homer which is below.

Satin HR 409

AAA Opening Night: Wilmer Flores and Travis d’Arnaud Beastly; Zack Wheeler Wild

AAA: Las Vegas 51s 10, Sacramento River Cats 5

Flores ST Stance (Baron)2B Wilmer Flores, in his first game in AAA as a 21-year old, was 3-3 with a double, a walk, two RBI and a sacrifice fly to the wall. One of his singles was a fastball away that he stroked crisply through the right side in a really mature piece of hitting.

C Travis d’Arnaud, in his first official game as a Met, was 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles, and two walks.

Zack Wheeler was throwing hard, because that’s what he does, but his command, on a cool California night after a rainy day, was lacking: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K. He threw 51 of his 86 pitches (59%) for strikes. He was sitting 95ish, which is nice. I only caught a little of Wheeler’s outing (after all, it wasn’t very long) and I saw him snap off a few good sliders, and then miss with others. Look, it’s not just money and service time keeping him from the Mets’ big league roster. He still has to improve his command.

It’s fun to stay up late for games and all, but making it to the end of every 51s game at 1 am on school nights is going to be neigh impossible.

Pitching Prospects: Mets Get it Right, Marlins Get it Wrong

Both the Mets and Marlins, two of the teams who can expect to inhabit the bottom of the National League East in 2013 made decisions with their best pitching prospect in the last week. The Mets, with Zack Wheeler got it right, and the Marlins, with Jose Fernandez got it wrong.

Background Projections
Wheeler (Baron)Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections saw the Marlins as a 70-win team and the Mets as an 82 win team. In the Mets’ case, that included 131 good (sub 3.50 ERA) innings from Johan Santana, which is not going to happen. ZiPS projected the Mets for 68 wins back in January. Vegas lists the Mets over/under at 74 and the Marlins at 64.5. Joe Sheehan saw 59 wins for the Marlins and 62 (and 100 losses) for the Mets.

These are teams that should not be placing much value on wins in 2013. Rather, it should be about building toward their next winning roster.

The Moves
Beset by injuries to two of their projected starting five rotation members, the Mets sent their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to AAA Las Vegas. Best by injuries to two of their projected starting five rotation members, the Marlins promoted Jose Fernandez straight from advanced-A to the big league rotation. Again, the 20-year old Fernandez has never thrown pitch in AA or AAA.

The Prospect Rankings
I saw Fernandez in 2012 when he was pitching for the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Of course I loved him, he throws 93-97 with a vicious slider and even showed a few good changeups to go along with some bad ones. Wheeler two has a premium fastball in the mid-90s with two potentially plus breaking balls – a slider and a curve. Coming into the season, Baseball America listed him as the game’s #5 prospect, had him #7, Baseball Prospectus at #6, while Wheeler was #11, #8 and #5 in those three rankings respectively. These are two of the game’s best pitching prospects. 

Are they Ready?
Zack Wheeler belongs in AAA right now. In 2012, in six starts in AAA with the Buffalo Bisons, he walked 16 of the 134 batters he faced, a rate of 11.9%. Major League average is 8.5%. Put another way, Wheeler has below average control. His stuff is so good and so lively, that he can get away with some mistakes – against AAA hitters, and even some Major League hitters. However, he cannot get away with that many.
Is Fernandez ready? Of course not. He’s never seen a double-A lineup nor a triple-A lineup. Fernandez has not thrown enough high-minors innings for ZiPS to spit out a projection on him. PECOTA thinks he could survive in the big leagues, projected a weighted mean ERA of 3.52 over only 37.1 innings. PECOTA spits out a weighted mean of 4.15 ERA for Wheeler in 108.3 innings.

The Money
Even if both players could survive a full-season in the big leagues, should they? That is, do their assignments give their teams the best chance of maximizing the players’ long-term (pre free agency) value? Again, neither the Mets nor Marlins should expect to be .500 teams this year.  So, what is the cost of promoting each player? If Fernandez or Wheeler start the season in the big leagues, and spend the whole year with their teams, they will burn a full year of service time and start their six-year clock towards free agency, becoming free agents after the 2018 season. This is the really big number. Assuming that each guy develops into a good or elite starting pitcher, the cost to a team of buying out their free agent years could be $20 million.

Keeping each player in the minors for roughly two months now before promoting a player will likely keep him out of the super-two arbitration category. The Super Twos get to go to arbitration four times instead of three, beginning after their second big league season. Because their raises start earlier, Super Two status could well be worth $10-$18 to the player and team over three years.

The Balance
So, neither the Mets nor Marlins is likely to be in a postion where any marginal wins in 2013 benefit the team dramatically. There is statistical evidence that suggests that Wheeler needs at least a little more time to polish his control. That evidence does not exist for Fernandez because he has never seen higher-level competition. His expected performance should have much larger error bars. And yet, the Marlins are willing to incur a significant cost in promoting Jose Fernandez right now. That makes no sense.

Zack Wheeler and the First Cuts

scissorsSunday, the Mets reassigned Zack Wheeler and nine other guys to minor league camp in the first cuts of the spring. Usually, these are cuts for guys who have zero chance of making the team, and nine of the 10 guys fit this profile.

There was player sent to the backfields who was moderately surprising (like in a very mild way) Collin McHugh. Why surprising? Well, he has big league experience. The 25-year old made four starts and four relief appearances in August and September 2012. He was hit hard in those appearances, yielding a 7.59 ERA on 27 hits, five homers and 21 runs in 21.1 innings. His strikeout to walk rate was a solid 2.13 (17 K/8 BB). In 4.2 innings this spring… Scratch that last sentence, nothing useful can come of it.

I thought McHugh had an outside chance to make the big league roster out of spring training if there was an injury to one of the five rotation regulars and he outperformed Jeremy Hefner. The first part of the last sentence is sort of happening. The second part has not.  While Johan Santana is not hurt, but he’s not exactly a healthy pitcher, and seems “likely” ticketed for the disabled list to start the season. Ted Berg tells everyone to shut up, stop worrying and appreciate the man. The Mets will need a fifth starter for the first time on Sunday, April 7th at the latest. I had figured that the Mets would want to keep multiple options in camp for that spot. Now, McHugh’s demotion more or less clears the way for Hefner if Santana cannot go.

Zack Wheeler thought that his minor oblique injury had something to do with the fact that he was sent down to minor league camp. That’s kinda cute, but the reality is that he had no chance to break camp with the Mets in 2013. None. Do not forget that last year in AAA, he averaged 5.5 innings per start over his six starts and walked 12% of the batters he faced (MLB average is 8%). These facts are related. He was walking too many batters, and throwing too many batters to succeed in the big leagues. Sure, the stuff, the fastball, the slider, and the curveball all are potentially plus Major League pitches. He just must harness them better.

Now, the other eight:
Hansel Robles – I touched on Robles last week. The bottom line is that he was in short-season Brooklyn last year. He was four levels from the big leagues.
Gonzalez Germen – The 25-year old was a below average starter in AA last year putting up a 4.59 ERA and a 5.4 R/9 where the Eastern League average was 3.91 and 4.30 respectively.
Elvin Ramirez – Three walks in 3.2 innings in spring training after 20 walks in 21.1 innings in the big leagues last year. He’s in mid-season form.
Darin Gorski – An average year at AA, earned Gorski a ticket to Las Vegas, not the big leagues.
Reese Havens – Oh boy. Coming off a .215/.340/.351 season as a 25-year old, Havens put together a 1-for-11 start in big league spring training while playing statuesque defense.
Juan Legares – An OK 2012 in AA earned him a nod to AAA Las Vegas, not the big leagues. As a right-handed hitting outfielder, keep Lagares in mind if he can figure out his approach. He can play all three outfield positions, although he’s better in a corner. I have a sneaking suspicion he will make his big league debut in 2013.
Wilfredo Tovar – The defensive specialist heads back to the minors after hitting .254/.308/.332 in half a season in double-A where he will probably begin 2013 playing everyday.
Cesar Puello – A .260/.328/.423 performance in 66 games in advanced-A in his age 20/21 season makes a weak case for a promotion to AA, but no kind of argument for a big league gig. He’s on the line between AA and a repeat of advanced-A this year.

What Kind of Hitter is Zack Wheeler? A Pitcher.

So, the bad news Wednesday was that Zack Wheeler came up with a mild oblique strain and could not make his scheduled start. Wheeler hurt himself in the batting cage, doing a drill that manager Terry Collins said the team has done “everyday.”

The Mets emphasized that they were being cautious with their prized pitching prospect. Collins explained post-game, “There’s no sense in pushing it…We gotta be very, very careful.”

In the minors, pitchers only bat at double-A and above, and only when two National League teams play each other. Wheeler did not bat until 2012, when he had 16 plate appearances for AA Binghamton and five for AAA Buffalo. If you’re curious, he was 1-for-17 with three sacrifices, a double, a walk and 11 strikeouts for a .059 combined average between the two levels.

I was curious what kind of swing Zack Wheeler owns. Terry Collins did not appear to like the question, responding,  “What do you want me to say, Toby, he’s a National League pitcher, he’s gotta hit…. He’s not going to hit fourth.” 

So there you have it: Zack Wheeler, great pitching prospect, but no Matt Harvey at the plate.