In 2009, Wheeler's senior year at East Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, he was drafted by the Giants in the first round, the sixth pick overall. He signed with the Giants, foregoing a commitment to attend Chipola College in Florida.
That year, he was named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year for Georgia. He went 9-0, 0.54 in 13 starts, with 151 strikeouts and just 20 walks in 77 2/3 innings.
Zack grew up in the Atlanta area as a staunch Braves fan, because of his father. But now the whole family switches to whatever organization Zach is pitching for.
Both of Zack's parents, Barry and Elaine, grew up playing baseball, basketball and softball in high school.
"(And) they both played after high school in rec leagues," Wheeler said. "Usually, they were the best people playing in that league. My dad played baseball until his mid-40s. My mom threw the hardest when she was playing softball.
"My middle brother (Adam) was drafted by the Yankees out of high school as a pitcher. (An injury forced him to retire four years later.) My oldest brother (Jacob) played high school basketball and baseball. He had some medical problems so he couldn't play after that. Otherwise, he might have been drafted, too.
"I was dribbling a basketball when I could stand. Jacob had me switch-hitting and trying to throw with both hands," Zack said.
In 2011, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Wheeler as the second best prospect in the Giants' organization, behind only first baseman Brandon Belt.
After moving to the Mets' organization, they ranked Wheeler as the #1 prospect in their farm system in the offseason before both their 2012 and 2013 spring camps opened.
Zack's older brother, Adam Wheeler, was a 13th-round pick by the Yankees in 2001 who spent four seasons in the Yankees system before a torn labrum ended his career.
Wheeler dominated Double-A competition with Binghamton in 2012, leading Eastern League starters by striking out 25 percent of batters faced while ranking fourth in both opponent average (.225) and WHIP (1.16).
Zach was a two-year letterman on the East Paulding basketball team, but after a strong summer in the East Cobb program in the summer of 2008, where he was named the program's most valuable pitcher, Wheeler chose to sit out his senior year and focus only on baseball.
- He likes to go fishing.
Wheeler has had some superstitions. In high school, he wore the same socks in every game from the summer of 2007 through 2009 graduation.
March 10, 2013: The Mets trimmed their roster, and Wheeler, the team's top pitching prospect, was among the cuts.
Zach admitted that an injured right oblique, which set him back for the two previous weeks, didn't help his case.
"Just keep working down there," Wheeler said of the message he got after a meeting with manager Terry Collins, general manager Sandy Alderson and pitching coach Dan Warthen. "Make us pull you up. We'll be looking for you soon."
Wheeler wanted to fit in, so he did what he had always done and followed the lead of his older brothers. On his first day at a new high school in a new town, he slipped on a jersey and baggy jeans, the kind that his brothers used to wear.
"Then I come out here and everybody's wearing polos and they're like frat kids," Wheeler said in 2013, not far from the Georgia high school from which he started his journey to the Major Leagues. "Everybody was making fun of me."
Eventually, he made the transition, just as he has done at every stop since that first day at East Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia. The distance between Smyrna and Dallas is only 20 miles, or a 40-minute drive on Georgia State Route 360. But it is possible for entire worlds to shift in that space, a reality that soon became clear to Wheeler.
The family moved to Dallas. Wheeler wound up at East Paulding High. It was there that he noticed that the parking lot was filled with street-legal versions of monster trucks. It was there where for the first time in his life, he sat in classes that were overwhelmingly white. He may have been the same racially but he wasn't culturally in a rural area that Jacob Wheeler said conjured up images of "trucks, farms, and tobacco spit.''
It was at East Paulding that Wheeler said he learned the value of "seeing different places and seeing how people live different."
"I finally got a girlfriend," he said. "She bought me a nice collared shirt and it just went on from there."
Wheeler played baseball and basketball before giving up the latter during his senior year.
"You find something in between, you figure out who you are, because he definitely faced a little bit of adversity when he went there," Jacob Wheeler said. "People said some mean things to him. It was good for him. He saw the other side of the coin."
He has been labeled as "quiet" or "introverted" or "reserved," adjectives that may be accurate in an outward sense. But to Wheeler, his perceived shyness is more a matter of consideration for others.
"I think it comes from an over-politeness," Jacob Wheeler said. "We're raised yes sir, no ma'am, yes sir. And you don't want to put people out. You may see people doing it all around you, asking questions and doing things. But you don't want to put people out."
Over time, Wheeler has made a point of getting better at reaching out. It's how he developed several important relationships, such as the one he enjoys with reliever Sergio Romo, who served as a mentor to Wheeler when the two were in the Giants' minor league system.
Zack has faced constant comparisons to fellow Mets phenom Matt Harvey. Harvey has dated a supermodel, made friends with the NHL's Rangers, and inspired comparisons to Dwight Gooden.
Wheeler, by contrast, describes a big night out in San Jose, California, one of his Minor League stops. He and his teammates would gather in the basement that he had redone as a man cave, where he has been known to spend hours (sometimes 10) playing "Call of Duty" with his friends.
With his bonus money from the Giants, Wheeler bought a home near his parents in Dallas, Ga., along with the kind of lifted pickup truck that dots the parking lot at East Paulding. He also donated the sparkling new scoreboard that looms over the leftfield fence at the baseball field.
While the Mets' clubhouse is filled with designer labels and tailored suits, Wheeler still finds himself most comfortable in T-shirts and baggy basketball shorts. (Marc Carig-6/24/13)
Interview/excerpts from August 29, 2013:
MLB.com: Zack, you made your debut a few months ago. Tell me about that night. You were in Atlanta, your home town, with a lot of friends and family around. Just tell me about that experience.
Wheeler: It was definitely fun to open up in my home city that I grew up in against the team that I was growing up watching. That was a lot of fun. I'm glad the Mets let me open up there. I had a lot of friends and family there, and I had a good time. It definitely made it better since I had a decent game.
MLB.com: When did you know you wanted to be a pitcher?
Wheeler: Sort of when I had to be a pitcher. Growing up I wasn't always the best. In Little League, I threw strikes, I was on the All-Star team and stuff, and I could play the field a little bit. But once I got out of that Little League stage and you have to start trying out for teams and doing travel ball stuff, I didn't quite mature as fast as everybody else. I wasn't always so strong, I didn't throw as hard and I wasn't as fast. I didn't get picked up for teams, so I'd always have to go to the crappy team, where they just needed to fill spots.
In my 16-year-old year, I started playing for East Cobb. I had played for them before, but I just played on crappy teams. The guy who runs it gave me a chance to be on his team. My brother played for him, so he knew what I was going to be like once I matured a little bit, and that summer I started growing and getting a little bit stronger. He helped me out, and that's when I really took the next step in being a pitcher only.
MLB.com: You improved a lot from there, obviously. You were drafted in the first round. At what point did you think you could make it to this level and succeed at this level?
Wheeler: Honestly, probably not even until after I got drafted would I have thought I would be up here. If I would have gotten drafted my junior year, I probably would not have been drafted very high, because I was throwing 90-92 in the first two innings, then I would drop off to like the high 80s and I didn't have any secondary pitches. So I didn't play basketball my senior year, which is probably my favorite sport, and that killed me. But I knew it was better for me. I gained 15 pounds of muscle, and I started throwing harder, and I lasted seven innings and I was throwing 95-97 the whole game. So that's really when I jumped up.
MLB.com: You're part of the solution here, along with a lot of young pitchers coming up. Matt Harvey came up last summer, you came up this summer. How much pressure is that on yourself to be a big part of the future, not only this year, but in the next 5-10 years?
Wheeler: It's no pressure on me. The fans or the media or whoever may think they're putting that pressure on me, they may think that a lot of pressure is on me. But I don't have any at all. I just go out there and pitch the best that I can.
MLB.com: Which was your favorite stadium so far?
Wheeler: Probably Dodger Stadium because it's L.A. Fans everywhere, celebrities in the stands, good weather out there, too. I love it.
MLB.com: You've had some success at Turner Field. You've had some success against the Braves. How have your friends back home reacted to that?
Wheeler: Every time I've pitched against them, I've done well. So after every time, I've been getting texts from friends and family saying, "Why are you trying to beat up on our Braves?" (DiComo - mlb.com - 8/29/13)
The three Wheeler brothers took after their parents, both athletes, who made basketball and baseball the center of life at home in suburban Atlanta.
The oldest, Jacob, played both sports in high school despite a condition that sent his heart rate soaring to dangerous levels. The middle child, Adam, pitched in the minor leagues for the Yankees until a torn labrum in his shoulder ended his promising career. And the youngest, Zack, grew up emulating Jacob and Adam. Whatever they did, Zack did.
"I'd always tease Zack, saying we'll wait until the day you hit 99 [mph], then you can talk," Adam said. "Then, he did." And over time, Adam and Jacob resolved to pour themselves into preparing their little brother for whatever might come.
It was Adam, 30, who taught his little brother the ways of the clubhouse: what to say, what to keep to yourself, how to act like a professional, how to avoid blowing his signing bonus, as he had once done.
It was Adam who, during his days as a Yankees farmhand, brought Zack along to spring training games. It was Adam who passed along all the things he learned about pitching from tutors such as Dwight Gooden.
And it was Adam who, after his own games, would squat down and catch his little brother in the parking lot of the ballpark because Zack was so eager to put the lessons into practice.
"It would be tough if he didn't make it [to the Majors]," said Adam, whose playing days ended in 2004. "But now that he made it, I don't even think about that because I get to live through him, I get to watch him. And that's as good as me making it."
It is Adam's No. 45 that Zack wears on his back today.
From Jacob, Zack learned never to take anything for granted.
Jacob was only 13 when doctors diagnosed him with supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that causes spells in which the heart beats abnormally fast. Doctors recommended surgery that they believed would correct the condition. It didn't. Still, Jacob played.
"It would be 300 beats per minute for like eight hours and I wouldn't say anything to anybody because they would make me stop [playing]," he said. "I was creating memories for myself with high school sports, and knowing I would never have another opportunity to play again."
With each passing season, he played less and less. By his junior year, he dropped baseball. As a senior, he played on the basketball team, though coaches used him sparingly for fear of aggravating his condition.
Jacob had his final surgery in 2012. It was unsuccessful, and he has since decided to attempt simply managing the condition.
"He always takes a step back and looks at things, like 'I'm lucky to be here,'" Zack said. "He doesn't take things for granted, you know?
A photograph shows the three brothers waiting anxiously on draft day in 2009. Zack sits in the middle, with Adam over his left shoulder and Jacob over his right. In many ways, they remain there still, looking out for the chosen one. Rarely does a day pass without a phone call or a text message.
"We all fit a different role," Jacob said. "If he calls Adam, he's probably looking to get a little help with a mechanical thing."
Adam, after all, remains a pitcher at heart. When Adam drove from his home in Indianapolis to watch Zack pitch in Cleveland, he insisted upon arriving early enough to see his little brother throw in the bullpen before the game.
"Get [ticked] off," said Adam, still an imposing figure at 6-6, though his playing days have long passed. "He's so laid back, you want to try to get him pumped up. That's how I was."
But when Zack needs to talk things through, when he wants for somebody to just listen, he calls Jacob.
"It's more of a vent session sometimes," Jacob said. "It's more of him breaking himself down verbally to somebody else and not getting anything back, necessarily." (Marc Craig - 9/16/13)
When the Giants gave Wheeler a $3.3 million signing bonus, he bought a truck. Then he went in on a house in Dallas, Georgia, with Jacob, who lives there year round. The home is a few blocks away from their parents.
And that's about all Zack did with his money.
For years, Jacob and Adam encouraged Zack to be mindful of his finances. During the offseason, while Zack was home, he came across a documentary about athletes squandering their fortunes.
"If his friends are over and he's going to order a pizza, he doesn't remember he's got money in the bank," Jacob said. "He's like 'Who's throwing in on the pizza?'"
Even during the season, while some of Wheeler's teammates splurged on Manhattan apartments, Wheeler remained in the team hotel. He preferred to pocket a few thousand extra bucks that would otherwise go toward rent.
Said Jacob: "There's some apprehensiveness there to take it all for granted."
And it is that lesson, above all, that both brothers wanted Zack to understand. It was the message Jacob intended to leave with Zack in that hospital room all those years ago. Looking back at it, Jacob still calls it "the hardest conversation I've ever had in my entire life."
He remembered trying not to cry in front of his little brother. He wanted his words to be clear.
"If you're going to do anything, do it for me," Jacob told Zack that day. "He's like 'All right.' That's all he said is 'All right.' That was it." (Marc Craig - 9/16/13)
2019 season: Wheeler was one of four Mets starters to make over 30 starts and helped get them back in the playoff race in the second half of the season.
Wheeler started slow out of the gate. Through the All-Star break, he pitched 119 innings and had an ERA of 4.69 and was on his way to the IL. Much like Noah Syndergaard, Wheeler could not find consistency, he would string together a couple solid starts then put together a start where he allowed five or six runs.
As the Mets were falling out of the race, rumors swirled around the idea of trading Wheeler to a contender. The idea made sense for the Mets but the longer they kept Wheeler the longer the rumors hung over him like a dark rain cloud. His value had also dipped because he was on the IL and only made one start before the trade deadline.
The one start was a good one as he went 5.1 innings allowing three runs and striking out seven, in what might have been his last start as Citi Field. The Mets decided to keep Wheeler and it seemed to relax him as he had the same second half resurgence as he had the year prior.
In his final 12 starts he had a 2.83 ERA, only allowed six home runs and only walked 16 batters. Wheeler went six innings or more in the 12 starts and finished the season going at least seven innings in his last five starts. Safe to say at that point he was not only pitching for the Mets playoff hopes, but a paycheck as well.
Wheeler declined the Mets qualifying offer to stay in New York, then signed a five-year/$118 million deal with the Phillies.
For the moment in July 2020, Zack plans to play. He considered the alternative. He needed to. Wheeler’s wife Dominique is due to deliver their first child later in July 2020, which places her in a high-risk group with COVID-19.
“Yeah, definitely,” Wheeler said. “We just have to see how things are here at the field and at the stadium. I'm happy with what I see so far. But things could change, especially once our baby’s born. I always think about what’s going on around me. Is it safe? Is it OK? Literally every single day. I have to just ask myself that. I’m going to continue to keep asking myself that every day.
“It’s a very difficult decision. It’s something that is still playing in my head. I have to be very careful here at the field, outside of the field, wherever I go. The baby’s and Dominique’s health are most important to me. So whatever I can do to make sure they are safe, that is the No. 1 goal for me. Baseball comes after that.”
Opening Day is July 23 or 24. Wheeler’s wife is due about that time. He will take three days of paternity leave. Once he returns, he needs to take a COVID-19 test. If he is cleared to rejoin the team, he will need at least a couple days to throw.
“It’s going to set me back a start or two, more than likely, but that’s just off the top of my head,” Wheeler said. “It’s something that we are definitely going to have to talk about it a little bit further into it and just get that figured out, ironed out.” (Zolecki - mlb.com - 7/5/2020)
June 2009: The Giants chose Wheeler in the first round of the draft, out of East Paulding High School in Georgia. When they chose Zack, more highly touted pitchers were available when the Giants picked. But even with Tyler Matzek, Kyle Gibson, Aaron Crow, Tanner Scheppers, Shelby Miller, and Alex White all there for the taking, Giants farm director John Barr and G.M. Brian Sabean said Wheeler was their top-rated player remaining.
"We compared him to Cain; we compared him to Bumgarner; we compared him to Alderson," Sabean said. "It all came back that this kid was very reminiscent of those types of picks."
With just four minutes to go before the August 17, deadline, Wheeler signed for a bonus of $3.3 million. Sean O'Connor is the scout who signed Zack.
July 27, 2011: The Mets sent OF Carlos Beltran to the Giants, acquiring Wheeler.
Jan 11, 2017: Zack avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $800,000 with the Mets.
Jan 11, 2019: Zack avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $5.9 with the Mets
Nov 14, 2019: Zack chose free agency. Wheeler rejected the Mets’ one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer, a source said, committing himself to exploring free agency for the first time in his career.
Dec 4, 2019: The Phillies and Wheeler agreed to a five-year, $118 million contract.
|DOB:||5/30/1990||Agent:||Jet Sports Mgmt.|
|Birth City:||Smyrna, GA|
|Draft:||Giants #1 - 2009 - Out of high school (GA)|
Wheeler has a lively 92-98 mph four-seam FASTBALL that jumps on hitters (and rates a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale), a two-seam 87-92 mph fastball with late sideways run away from lefthanded batters when he stays on top of the pitch. He also has a good hard and tight overhand swing-and-miss 77-79 mph CURVEBALL (slurve, really) that has late bite and depth and is his out pitch.
In 2011, he added an 87-89 mph wipeout SLIDER he pitches on the inside corner to lefty batters. And he has a good 84-86 mph CHANGEUP (a 55 on the 20-80 scale) with sinking and fading action.
His downer curveball has two-plane break and is a knee-buckler vs. righthanded hitters. Scouts rate it a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He can use it in the zone and generate swings-and-misses or bury it in the dirt after approaching the plate about knee-high. It is the best breaking pitch in the Mets organization (2011 and 2012).
Generally, Wheeler said he just goes with whichever breaking ball is working for him that day. If his mid-80s slider is flat, he’ll throw more curves. If he finds himself getting out too quick and casting his curveball, then he’ll lean on his slider.
2016 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball: 50.1% of the time; Sinker 15.1% of the time; Change 5.8%; Slider 15.2%; and Curve 13.8% of the time.
2018 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 58.3% of the time, his Change 6.2%; Slider 19.2%; Curveball 10.5%; and Split 5.9% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 96.6 mph, Change 89.3, Slider 91.5, Curve 79.8, and Split 89.9 mph.
2019 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 59.1% of the time, his Change 9.1%; Slider 20%; Curveball 9.9%; and Split 1.9% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 97 mph, Change 89.2, Slider 91.5, Curve 80.9, and Split 89.4 mph.
- In 2013, Baseball America gave scouting ratings to Wheeler. His fastball got a 70, on the 20-80 scouting scale, his slider a 60 and his changeup a 50. He got a 60 for his control, and a 55 for his command.
Of his changeup, Zack explained, "Mine is a circle-change grip,” Wheeler said, “but I just move my fingers up over the ball a bit and put my pinky under it to try to get depth."
He has learned to change speeds effectively.
- Zack has impressive command of his pitches. He locates his fastball down in the zone quite well. Late life on his heater produces defensive swings by batters even when they're ahead in the count. Not many pitchers can get a hitter out with his fastball even in a hitter's count.
He comes at hitters from a good downhill plane. Wheeler is thin with long, loose arms, with the right one generating superb arm speed. He has fine mechanics and a smooth, easy and repeatable high-three-quarters delivery that gives him good, but not pinpoint command. His delivery has deception.
In 2011, his delivery was tweaked. He returned to the delivery he used in high school. That included a return to a higher leg kick and "bringing my hands (up higher) next to my head," he said.
"When I first got drafted (and) went to (instructional league), they tried to settle my motion down a little bit, make it a little easier," Wheeler said. "I think I just had to think a little too much. I was going too slow, didn't have any rhythm really. When I broke my hands I had to think about getting the ball up and stuff a little too much.
"It's all one fluid motion now. It works out good. I just feel comfortable again."
- Wheeler has a good approach. His intelligence on the mound impresses. He is not just a thrower, Zack can pitch. He controls both sides of the plate. (Spring 2014)
Binghamton (EL-Mets) pitching coach Glenn Abbott believes that mastering body control as one approaches physical maturity can be the final obstacle for young pitchers—particularly those with long limbs, like Wheeler—on their way to developing big league command.
Wheeler doesn't work a lot of deep counts. He lets opponents put the ball in play or he throws it by them.
- June 18, 2013: Wheeler had seven strikeouts and a lively upper-90s fastball to clean up his own mess in spots while turning in six shutout innings in his Major League debut.
Wheeler was very effective with his pitches in 2013.
"You could tell he's still maturing and growing. He's got some things to work on obviously with the off-speed pitches and getting ahead of hitters and getting that pitch count down," Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. "But you can see the stuff is there."
"When he pounds the strike zone, he gets outs. He's got great movement on his fastball. But he's got to work so hard," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "A lot of deep counts, and the more Major League hitters see pitches, the more dangerous they become."
As he progresses, Wheeler's learning how to limit those mistakes. It's a process, but he's certainly headed in the right direction.
"I'm starting to gain a little more confidence," Wheeler said. "I just have to trust my stuff and go after guys." (7/25/13)
Wheeler's game management is among his finest qualities. He handles the pressures of pitching to big league hitters with advanced composure and confidence. Wheeler just doesn't get rattled very easily, if at all.
Although he is two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, Wheeler reminds people of Zack Greinke on the mound. He has similar mannerisms and carries himself with a no-nonsense approach like Greinke. Wheeler's vast repertoire is among his greatest assets. He throws several pitches with good command and control.
Although he has a high-velocity fastball, Wheeler isn't purely a strikeout pitcher. He doesn't miss lots of bats, but hitters are unable to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the ball. That's because Wheeler's fastball explodes at the hitter.
The late movement on Wheeler's pitches causes late reaction, usually resulting in hitters beating the ball into the ground or hitting a weak popup. It is the explosion on his pitches that causes lots of foul balls, increasing his pitch count.
Wheeler has a knack of pitching ahead in counts. In so doing, he dictates his pitch sequences and he controls the at-bat, not the hitter. In some cases, Wheeler elevates the fastball, getting hitters to chase a pitch that looks hittable, but really isn't.
For Mets management and the team's fans, it is important to note that as good as Wheeler is now (August 2013), he isn't a finished product. His changeup is probably not fully developed as an alternative off-speed pitch to complement his fastballs. Once that pitch receives a more prominent place in his repertoire, Wheeler will be even tougher to hit. (Pleskoff - mlb.com - 8/15/13)
Wheeler posted his first career shutout, a three-hitter with eight Ks and one walk in a 1-0 victory over the Marlins. (6/19/14)
A year after Wheeler leaned heavily on his fastball during an impressive 2013 rookie campaign, he earned regular praise during an inconsistent-turned-breakout 2014. The development of his changeup, an option he first toyed with during his Giants days but hardly used in 2013, has helped Wheeler take steps forward in producing consistently at the Major League level, and it underscores his growth as a pitcher overall.
A deeper look at Wheeler's repertoire reveals modifications in his pitch usage, specifically a tendency to rely less on his four-seam fastball and more on his secondary offerings. And it wasn't an accident.
Pitching coach Dan Warthen sat his hurlers down at the beginning of the season and asked each one to set goals for himself. Wheeler's was to have a Major League-average changeup by season's end. Nothing fancy, just another weapon to supplement his four-seamer and secondary offerings, including a curveball and a slider. A changeup was a good addition because it looks like a fastball . . . until it doesn't. The batter, expecting a 97-mph heater, starts swinging too early for the slower-arriving change.
That early season meeting with Warthen began a concerted effort on Wheeler's part to turn it into a reliable go-to pitch, which he has done by putting it up against big leaguers more regularly. Last season, when only 3 percent of his pitches were changeups, Wheeler would occasionally overthrow it, according to catcher Travis d'Arnaud. Wheeler said that might have been a product of his holding it too tightly (back on his palm) or too loosely (more up on his fingers) on a given night.
"Sometimes he'd just try to make it do too much, and it actually hurts it. It makes the pitch flatter," d'Arnaud said. "Your body flies open, and the pitch gets flatter, and you lose command of it."
In 2014, that isn't so much an issue—if Wheeler doesn't have a good feel for his changeup one night, the battery will stay away from it. On the season, though, Wheeler was throwing it 7 percent of the time, more than twice as often as he did in 2013. Most of them come against lefties—it tails away from them and is harder to hit -- but righties are actually hitless against 29 changeups this year.
Wheeler said he has reached the point where he is comfortable throwing it in just about any situation -- like a full count with two outs, for example. The changeup has become reliable enough that he trusts it, so even though a ball means a walk, it remains an option. With a greater frequency of changeups came results.
"This guy is throwing 97 mph, you better speed your bat up to get to it," manager Terry Collins said. "And so if he's willing to use his changeup, you're going to get swings and misses or you're going to get little ground balls. It's a good pitch for him. It's getting better for him because he's throwing it more."
"Basically he's found a solid delivery and repeatable delivery, and that way he can get his arm into the same place on each and every pitch, and so he can throw any pitch he wants in any count," Warthen said. "Very seldom does a four-pitch pitcher have all four pitches working on a particular day. On those days, you're supposed to throw a shutout. (Healey - mlb.com - 8/21/14)
April 23, 2019: Wheeler is the first 100/100 pitcher in 2019.
For a Major League batter, hitting a ball at least 100 mph is a relatively common feat. For a pitcher, less so, though 13 of them have managed it this season. Throwing a ball at least 100 mph? While more common than ever, it's still a rare accomplishment, with only 12 pitchers reaching that third digit in 2019.
The middle section of the Venn diagram -- pitchers who have both hit a ball and thrown a pitch at least 100 mph this season -- consists of one man. Earlier in April, 2019 in Atlanta, Zack Wheeler reached 100.6 mph on the radar gun, according to Statcast data. He crushed his first career homer 101.4 mph to the opposite field, capping arguably the most productive game of his career. In a 9-0 rout of the Phillies at Citi Field, Wheeler homered, doubled and knocked home three runs at the plate, while striking out 11 over seven scoreless innings.
Somewhat appropriately, Wheeler did it in his 100th career start.
"He's nasty," Mets third baseman Todd Frazier said. "God, he makes it look easy."
In so doing, Wheeler joined a select group, becoming the fifth Met to homer and strike out double-digit batters in the same game. (The fourth, Jacob deGrom, accomplished the feat earlier this month.) The Mets also became the first club since at least 1908 to receive homers from three different pitchers in their first 25 games.
"He did everything right," manager Mickey Callaway said of Wheeler.
Entering the night, the Mets were mostly concerned with Wheeler the pitcher. While the right-hander had shown flashes of improvement throughout April, he still had not unlocked the formula that made him one of baseball's most successful starters in the second half last season. At his best, Wheeler can throw five electric pitches, from a four-seam fastball that hits triple digits to a hammer curve and diving splitter.
He mixed in all of them in the early innings, striking out 11 of the first 18 batters he faced. Only once did the Phillies put a runner in scoring position, when Maikel Franco doubled with two outs in the fourth. But when the next batter singled to left to threaten the shutout, Jeff McNeil threw out Franco attempting to score from second.
By that point, Wheeler had provided all the offense the Mets would need, pulling a two-run double to right field in the second inning and scoring on a Cesar Hernandez error. Two innings later, suspecting Phillies starter Zach Eflin might try to sneak a first-pitch fastball by him, Wheeler crushed it to left-center for his first career homer. He became the 11th Mets pitcher to record two extra-base hits in a game, and the first since Noah Syndergaard homered twice on May 11, 2016.
"Pitching's obviously first, but we work a lot on our hitting," Wheeler said. "We take pride in it. We want to go up there and do well as a staff and not give them an easy out. Luckily, I wasn't an easy out tonight."
Not many pitchers have thrown a 100-mph pitch and hit a 100-mph batted ball in the same season since Statcast began tracking in 2015. Wheeler is one of 14 in that club, several of whom have done it in more than one year. That includes Wheeler, who already was one of five to accomplish the feat in '18, along with Nathan Eovaldi, Mike Foltynewicz, two-way star Shohei Ohtani and Syndergaard.
Ask Wheeler, though, and he's more likely to wax poetic about his seven shutout innings. Staked to an eight-run lead in the middle innings thanks to Frazier's grand slam, Wheeler navigated the sixth without issue, batted in the bottom of the inning -- a strikeout, if you'd believe it -- then buzzed through his final three Phillies on seven pitches in the seventh. All told, he threw 105 pitches and allowed five hits. He did not walk a batter. That, for the Mets, was most exciting of all. Particularly with deGrom on the injured list and Syndergaard struggling, Wheeler has become a critical figure in the Mets' rotation. As much as ever, the team needs him to thrive -- whether the radar gun registers 100 mph or not.
"His mechanics are synced up," Callaway said. "He's feeling good. That's probably one of the best games I've ever seen him throw." (A Dicomo - MLB.com - April 24, 2019)
Dec 16, 2019: Wheeler became more involved in analytics in his final season with the Mets. He read the comps to Gerrit Cole. He has seen numbers that suggest he might benefit from throwing more four-seam fastballs and curveballs and fewer two-seam fastballs and sliders.
“We are pretty comparable stuff-wise, but he’s on this level,” Wheeler said about Cole, raising his hand above his head. “That’s where I want to get to. I think I’m capable of it, and I think it’s just figuring out a couple things like he did. He always had it, but he just finally figured it out and just took that next step and hasn’t let up since.”
Wheeler’s four-seam fastball (.348 expected slugging percentage) proved more effective than his two-seam fastball (.470) last season. His curveball (.246 xSLG) proved far more effective than his slider (.418). He got more swings and misses with his curveball (28.1%) and four-seam fastball (27.1) than his slider (26.6), changeup (23.1) and two-seam fastball (15.9).
“I don’t think it’s a secret these days, so I can say it,” Wheeler said. “My two-seam gets hit a little bit more than my four-seam, so maybe it’s throwing more four-seams. It’s not a big speed difference, so it’s no secret, but maybe it’s throwing more four-seams. That’s one of the smaller things that you can do to get better without having to change too much and get in your own head.” (T Zolecki - MLB.com - Dec 16, 2019)
2019 Season: Wheeler, just 29, went 11-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts in the 2019 season with the Mets. In 60 starts over the past two seasons, he had a 3.65 ERA and a 3.37 FIP. Based on FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, Wheeler’s WAR either made him a top-tier pitcher during in that span. (Editor's note: And he was rewarded with a big free agent contract. See Transactions.)
As of the start of the 2020 season, Wheeler's career record was: 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA, having allowed 75 home runs and 700 hits in 749 innings.
- Zack talks about his curveball:
Wheeler’s father taught him how to throw a curveball on the mound at his Little League field, although he could not throw it in games until he turned 11 or 12. His father wanted him to first learn the proper technique.
“It got me going and thinking about it,” Wheeler said.
Every Phillies fan has heard something about Wheeler’s curveball since the team signed him to a five-year contract in December. It is an excellent pitch. It is excellent in part because the speed differential between his four-seam fastball (96.8 mph) and curveball (80.7 mph) is so extreme. Its spin rate ranked in the 71st percentile, and the pitch averaged 2.3 inches more movement vertically. Opponents had a .245 wOBA against it, compared to his slider (.275), changeup (.275), four-seam fastball (.281) and sinker (.345). Since 2017, opponents had a .211 batting average, a .303 slugging percentage and a .252 wOBA against it.
Still, Wheeler threw his curveball only 10% of the time last year. Expect that number to increase.
Wheeler’s grip is different from others. The bottom of the horseshoe faces into his hand and he places the middle finger on the right seam so he can pull down on it. But unlike Arrieta, Nola, Pivetta and Velasquez, who spike their index fingers to varying degrees, Wheeler places his index finger next to his middle finger.
“I’ve only heard of one other guy [in Phillies camp] holding it like that,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, you’re the first guy I’ve seen that holds it like that.'”
But why try anything else? It works.
“I usually always have my curveball,” Wheeler said. “I’ve just got a good feel for it. Nothing really changes with the grip. Even with a fastball, sometimes it feels like a little off, just because your fingers might be a little weird that day. But the curveball, it’s always going to be there. I don’t know why, but it is.” (Todd Zolecki - April 27, 2020)
Zach excels at holding baserunners on, rarely allowing a stolen base.
For example, in 2012, just 8 of 19 base-stealers (42 percent) succeeded against him.
May 19-June 2010: Wheeler was on the D.L. because of a problem with his fingernail on his right middle finger. It was cracked and torn, not allowing him to throw the ball for a few weeks.
March 17, 2012: Zack turned his left ankle walking up the steps to his apartment and missed a week of action.
May 2-10, 2012: Wheeler was on the D.L. with a right middle fingernail avulsion, or tearing away of the nail on his pitching hand. He occasionally suffers from the middle-fingernail avulsion on his pitching hand, which means that the nail tends to disconnect from the skin underneath. Wheeler feels fine on days he pitches, but soreness often lingers into his side sessions between starts. It first cropped up in 2010.
- February 27, 2013: Zack was scratched from his first career Grapefruit League start with a mild strain of an oblique muscle on his right side. He suffered the injury swinging a bat in the cage pregame. The right-hander described the oblique muscle as feeling "a little stiff" and "nothing serious" and suggested he quickly would return to action.
"I'd rather be out one start than two months and be behind the eight-ball when I do come back," Wheeler said. "Early in the spring you don't want to risk anything. We have a month, or a month and a half, left."
May 15-22, 2013: Wheeler was on the D.L.
March 15, 2015: Wheeler was diagnosed with a fully torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. An MRI was reviewed by Dr. David Altchek. So Zack underwent Tommy John surgery near the end of March.
March 25-August 2016: Zack went on the DL while recovering from the Tommy John surgery.
April 8, 2016: Zack will undergo a procedure to have a suture knot removed from his pitching arm. The Mets do not consider the operation serious, and said in a statement that they do not expect it to affect his rehab timeline.
One suture knot from Wheeler's 2015 Tommy John surgery never dissolved, necessitating the surgery under local anesthetic. The Mets expected him to begin throwing again within a few days of the operation.
August 17-Nov 3, 2016: Wheeler was diagnosed with mild flexor strain in his right elbow. (Editor's note: In all of 2016, Wheeler pitched only 1 inning, and that was in the minors.)
June 20-July 1, 2017: Wheeler was on the DL with biceps tendinitis.
July 23-Nov 3, 2017: Zack was on the 60-day DL with stress reaction in right arm.
Feb. 11, 2018: Wheeler announced he underwent a series of stomach injections over six months to help promote bone strength and increase bone mineral density.
- July 12-26, 2019: Zack was on the IL with right shoulder fatigue. The team said the injury was discovered coming out of the All-Star break.