Zack Wheeler‘s spring debut set the prospect world abuzz as the right-hander showed elite stuff in two scoreless innings of work. Having seen him pitch twice for the Augusta GreenJackets in 2010, Wheeler’s outing is an example of projection blooming into production.
Reading through older reports while watching Hotel Transylvania left me looking for “The Zing”, or the moment when one becomes smitten with a prospect knowing he’ll be special. Wheeler provided one of those in 2010 when I wrote,
“Wheeler had a definite “wow” factor which the overwhelming majority of prospects simply do not have. Behind Julio Teheran, he’s the second best pitcher I have ever seen at the level and has true impact starter upside.”
Seeing Wheeler pitch in Grapefruit League action is an opportunity to reflect on memories from three seasons ago, and identify areas where he has grown.
In 2010, Wheeler suffered a cracked fingernail resulting in his throwing just 58 2/3 innings. While working to regain his arm strength, my first look at Wheeler was out of the bullpen where his fastball dominated South Atlantic League Hitters. At the time, I wrote,
“At 94-96 MPH, Wheeler’s fastball exploded on top of Sand Gnats hitters. His long stride created excellent downward plane with a touch of arm side fade. In this outing, he appeared to be rearing back trying to light up the radar gun instead of working to command the pitch.”
A couple of weeks later, I was afforded a second look at Wheeler as a starter. Over multiple innings, Wheeler’s fastball sat at 92-94 MPH. For the level, it was still elite velocity, but not nearly as impressive as when he threw with max effort.
Fast forward to 2013 and Wheeler frequently popped 96 MPH on the radar gun with ease — Especially from the stretch. Anything 92-94 was a two-seam fastball, and Wheeler was able to maintain both the downward plane and arm side fade (See his Bryce Harper sequence) from early in his development.
Wheeler’s curveball was also improved from the inconsistent breaking pitch scouted in 2010.
“Thrown in the low-80′s, Wheeler’s curveball is a harder offering than I normally see at the level. With tight, sharp break, the pitch exhibits wipeout potential in the bullpen. although he hung it a couple of times in game action, Wheeler creates plenty of depth with enough glove side run to make it more of a 11-5 offering.”
In his start, the curveball was even less impressive as Wheeler struggled to command the pitch while presenting with decreased velocity.
Against the Nationals, Wheeler’s curveball was more of a true, 12-6 offering instead of presenting with “slurvy” movement. He paired it with an upper-80′s slider not seen in 2010. It’s a true power stuff, but don’t forget about his changeup. It showed potential in Single-A and will be a legitimate fourth pitch at the Major League level.
Beyond Wheeler’s arsenal, adjustments to mechanics and tempo have ironed out any rough spots in his delivery. The pause in his leg kick seen in 2010 is gone. A bit of “whippy” arm action in the back of his delivery is now smooth and easy. Wheeler’s finish carries his momentum through the pitch where he had a tendency to recoil just three seasons ago.
The New York Mets open the season with three starters who missed significant time in 2012 due to injury. With Collin McHugh and Jenrry Mejia in the mix for starts should an injury occur, the organization can afford to be patient with Wheeler.
However, their new affiliate in Las Vegas muddles the picture as the Blue Jays made a habit of jumping pitching prospects from Double-A to Toronto to avoid one of the worst pitcher’s environment in minor league baseball. So while starting the arbitration clock of the organization’s best prospect makes little sense from a financial standpoint, a trial by fire approach may be best for his development as a pitcher.
Hat tip to Jeff Zimmerman for his help pulling the gif.