Zack Wheeler is absolutely filthy but he is coming off of Tommy John surgery. With his return tentatively slated for June, what can we reasonably expect? The general rule of thumb is that velocity returns before control for post-TJ pitchers. Wheeler was always a high velocity guy with some control problems which are likely to continue this season. That’s probably not very enticing, but Wheeler will cost next to nothing on draft day and could be a very valuable stash.
Let’s start with evaluating Wheeler when he was healthy in 2014. He threw 185.33 IPs with a 3.54 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 23.6 K% and 10 BB%. The underlying stats suggest these were all legit with a 3.55 FIP and 3.49 xFIP. He increased his GB% from 43.2 to 54. All of these stats suggest that Wheeler had a pretty good year for a 24 year old. Then you look at his Pitch F/X and his skills just jump off the page. The below chart shows Wheeler’s whiff rate (whiffs per swing) per pitch in the 2014 season. I included Jacob deGrom’s 2015 whiff rates as a comparison.
(Stats from Brooksbaseball)
As you can see, Wheeler profiles very similarly to deGrom, only lacking the killer changeup but possessing a better curveball. Across all pitches, deGrom’s 2015 whiff rate was 27.46% good for 11th in the majors last year amongst SPs with at least 2000 pitches thrown. In 2014, Wheeler’s whiff rate was 25.19% which ranked 21st in 2014. By no means do I think Wheeler will be deGrom this year, I’m merely stating that Wheeler throws filth and if he can harness his control (like deGrom) he could be a special pitcher.
Wheeler throws straight heat to go along with his stuff which is why his appeal is so high. His career average fastball velocity is 94.5 mph. Coupled with a curveball that averages 78.4 and it’s easy to see the positives. As stated above, velocity tends to come back pretty quickly. I’m not sure he’ll be averaging 95 right out of the gate, but it’s reasonable to think that he can average something close to that over the entirety of his 2016 season. If he can maintain that velocity, he should be able to rack up some Ks.
Big Fat Bartolo Colon is a hero amongst the masses and a man to be admired for both his girth and his ability to pump fastballs all day and not post terrible numbers. Unless there is an injury, Colon is likely the man occupying Wheeler’s eventual rotation spot. The Mets just gave Colon $7.25 million and in the past he has expressed his desire to stay in the rotation. Depending on how he performs, there may not be a spot for Wheeler come June without an injury. Matz is the other candidate to be replaced and if he struggles, it’s an easy swap to send Matz back down to work out the kinks. The Mets have no incentive to rush Wheeler back given their SP depth, but any injury or struggles should immediately open the door for Wheeler.
Given the obstacles and the injury, I would only draft Wheeler if my league had at least one DL slot if not two. If the DL slot was needed, I’d have a hard time holding onto Wheeler. He is competing with Alex Cobb for the second best SP DL stash (Yu Darvish being the clear number one). If you can afford to stash Wheeler I would absolutely draft him late as his upside is likely to be many rounds ahead of where you can get him in the draft. In a keeper or dynasty, I’d target Wheeler sooner rather than later as positive reports in the coming months are likely to increase his value.
Steamer projects Wheeler for a 3.71 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, 23.0 K%, and 8.8 BB% in 65 IPs. I don’t think I’m nearly as bullish on the BB% dropping but I’m close on the other numbers. I’m giving Wheeler a 3.7 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 24 K% and a 10.3 BB%. These numbers don’t jump off the page, but there’s a chance for a decent ERA and high Ks with a not awful WHIP.