Zack Wheeler is far from the only case of a pitcher seeing his home run rate climb juxtaposed with the quality of his pitches. Let’s examine how the New York Mets righty is surviving in spite of the long ball.
Zack Wheeler has been a curious case of late for the New York Mets. On the one hand, he’s been able to consistently pitch deep into games, going at least seven innings in his last four starts. In that stretch, he has allowed 19 hits over 28.1 innings.
The problem is, the ball is leaving the yard with a lot more frequency. Wheeler has given up 11 home runs in 13 starts. Seven of those have come in the last four turns in the rotation. In his last start on Thursday against San Francisco, Wheeler surrendered two round-trippers.
So what’s up? Wheeler has not had this issue before. In his two full seasons (32 starts in 2014 and 29 in 2018), Wheeler had a home run per nine inning rate of 0.7. He gave up 14 homers total in each season. This year, his home run rate has spiked up to 1.2.
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Naturally, there are more total home runs in the game so that’s a starting point in any conversation of why a pitcher is giving up more homers. And Wheeler is far from the only case in a sudden increase in home runs allowed.
When you break down the numbers, there isn’t much of a difference from a sample size of 2018 to this year and any difference is positive for Wheeler. According to the website, Baseball Savant, Wheeler’s fastball velocity ranks in the 96th percentile this year compared to 89 last season. His fastball spin rate landed in the 65th percentile last year and is in the 66th this season. His breaking ball spin is also in the 69th percentile compared to 63 a year ago.
If anything, the numbers show that he’s throwing harder in 2019. His fastball velocity averaged 95.9 last year and is sitting at 96.8 this year. Yet, he’s given up seven home runs off that fastball so far this season.
Perhaps an even more surprising statistic when you put all the data together: nine of the 11 home runs Wheeler has allowed have been when even or ahead in the count. Of those nine homers allowed, six have come with two strikes.
He has the stuff to be a dependable starter and he’s shown that over stretches of his career. The home run issue is a concern and Wheeler himself has been perplexed by the number of homers allowed.
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However, ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching) tend to even out. Currently, Wheeler’s FIP is lower than his ERA by almost a full run (3.57 to 4.61). I expect Wheeler to make the adjustments necessary moving forward and he’s already providing value by going deep into games.