After blanking the Braves for six innings and striking out seven with his often overpowering fastball during his major league debut last week, Zack Wheeler was off his game last night in Chicago against the White Sox.
There are those who are attempting to glean way too much from last night’s start. Some are worried about him (which is absurd), some are chalking it up to a simple off night, and lots of people are bellowing to all who will listen that Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. We knew that before last night. No matter how good Wheeler ends up being, his results should stand alone.
Wheeler himself termed last night’s start a “bad” one. Now, take the following into account. Wheeler, for some reason, was ordered by the combination of Dan Warthen and Terry Collins to focus more on his slider and changeup last night. This edict was carried out by John Buck, and left Wheeler at a severe disadvantage. Of the four hits Wheeler gave up last night, three were on secondary offerings.
Furthermore, Wheeler (according to Ron Darling, Dan Warthen, and others), was tipping his pitches last night. Since he had different arm angles while throwing different pitches, he was telegraphing what he was about to throw. He also suffered from a combination of bad umpiring and bad luck. The single Wheeler gave up to lead off the game was a jam job off the hitter’s thumbs that landed behind the mound. That run then came across to score without the benefit of a legitimate hit.
There were also two strikeouts Wheeler registered that were taken away due to the ineptitude of the home plate umpire. On both occasions, Wheeler induced a swinging strike three, only to have the home plate umpire incorrectly rule that the batter had fouled off the third strike. This led to prolonged at bats, Wheeler’s pitch count rising, and his strikeout total for the night being one instead of three.
To recap, Wheeler (by order of the coaching staff) wasn’t pitching to his strength. He had poor command, he was tipping his pitches, was the recipient of bad luck, and was done in twice by the home plate umpire. He must’ve gotten clobbered, right? Wrong.
Wheeler gave up the same amount of hits last night (four) that he gave up in his debut start last week. He again refused to allow a hit with runners in scoring position, and walked two less batters than he did during his debut. Of the four runs Wheeler allowed last night, three came across on something other than a hit (two RBI groundouts and a shallow sacrifice fly). The other run (a solo homer off the bat of Tyler Flowers), landed in the first row of seats just beyond the 375 foot mark in left center field.
If Wheeler hadn’t uncorked a wild pitch with two on and none out in the fifth inning, he very well may have won the game despite all the misfortune (self inflicted and otherwise) that befell him.
The stuff is there for Wheeler – it always has been. He was more relaxed last night than he was during his debut last week in Atlanta, but he allowed four runs instead of none. As is noted above, there are a plethora of reasons why that was the case. There’s no need to over-react (just like there would’ve been no reason to anoint him as the second coming had he dominated the White Sox).
Wheeler will make his home debut at Citi Field against the Nationals in four days. Between now and then, there will be more forced discussion about what to make of Wheeler’s so called rough night in Chicago. After his home debut, we’ll go through this once again. What people should actually be doing, is sitting back and allowing the process to take care of itself. Wheeler has all the tools. One great start doesn’t cement him as an Ace, and one so-so outing doesn’t make it any less likely that he’ll reach his potential.