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July 26, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Real Reason Why Zack Wheeler is Predictable

by Sam Miller

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The beguiling thing is that, to you or I and probably even to people smarter than you and I, there was really nothing to differentiate Matt Harvey from Zack Wheeler.

Both pitched in Single-A St. Lucie; Harvey was 22, Wheeler 21:

  • Wheeler: 10.3 K//9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9, 2.00 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 27 innings
  • Harvey: 10.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 2.37 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 76 innings

Both pitched in Double-A Binghamton at age 22:

  • Wheeler: 9.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 0.2 HR/9, 3.26 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 116 innings
  • Harvey: 9.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 4.53 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 60 innings

Both pitched in Triple-A at 23:

  • Wheeler: 9.2 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.72 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 102 innings
  • Harvey: 9.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 3.68 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 110 innings

Add them up and, since Wheeler had joined the Mets organization, until he reached the majors at age 23, he had been almost identical to Harvey in the time between Harvey joining the Mets and reaching the majors at age 23:

  • Wheeler: 9.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 2.87 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 245 innings
  • Harvey: 9.8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 3.48 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 246 innings

Here’s one of the last scouting reports we ran on Harvey before his promotion:

Harvey attacks hitters with a 92-95 mph fastball that can touch 97 and features plenty of life. His slider gives him a second bat-missing offering with its heavy two plane break, and Harvey is comfortable throwing it at any point in the count. He's an efficient pitcher who throws strikes and has the kind of body and delivery designed to handle a big league workload.

And for Wheeler:

Wheeler has plus-plus heat with a 92-98 mph fastball that he threw more strikes with as the season wore on. Scouts are equally bullish on his classic over-the-top curveball that features heavy late break and can freeze hitters in the zone or induce them to chase in the dirt. He has a projectable frame and a smooth delivery.

There’s a bit of difference theresmooth and easy vs. big body; dominant slider vs. dominant curveball—but not necessarily an obvious advantage. They had similar contact rates, groundball rates, infield fly rates in the minors. Batters pulled a few more fly balls against Harvey, but Harvey threw a few more strikes than Wheeler. But, basically, indistinguishable.

No more, of course. To put it in perspective: Wheeler has made seven starts as a major leaguer, and his highest game score is 69. Harvey’s median game score this year is 69. If you remove Wheeler’s line from Harvey’s line, the rest of Harvey’s season looks like this:

  • 0.88 FIP (roughly), 1.37 ERA, 126 Ks to eight walks, and a .171/.188/.212 opponents batting line.

It’s beguiling. That’s why it was so interesting to hear, almost immediately after he began struggling, that Wheeler was tipping his pitches. The question is how much that matters.

***

Here’s a quick rundown of what we know, or have been told, or have seen.

After Wheeler’s second start, his manager, Terry Collins

...said in his pregame media session the Mets noticed the flaw in Wheeler's motion during his second big league start a night earlier. Wheeler allowed four runs in 5 1-3 innings against the Chicago White Sox. ''We saw it. We tried to address it during the game a little bit,'' Collins said.

''Guys look for it all the time. It starts with the glove,'' said Collins. ''Moving the glove there's different things to look for and then all of sudden you start to look when he speeds up, when he slows down, what the pitches are. You start to get a read on it.''

Collins said he's talking publicly about it because the problem was so obvious he received about 10 text messages and emails alerting him to the issue.

More specifically, the Star-Ledger reported,

The problem, according to the Mets, rests in right-hander Zack Wheeler’s arm angle as he sets before he delivers a pitch. That angle, they believe, is a telltale sign of what pitch Wheeler is about to throw.

According to a recounting by Mets Merized Online, two retired players on the MLB Network broke down Wheeler’s pitch-tipping and found that it continued into his third start:

With a breaking ball he keeps his hands close to his body, and a fastball he has his hands away from his body when he sets up.

Then in the 13-2 drubbing, Cora explains how the Nationals knew every pitch that was coming. With the fastball, Wheeler’s glove was placed on his belt buckle, glove closed with his legs straight. When it was a breaking ball, Wheeler’s glove was placed over his belt buckle, open and his back leg bent.

And then Eno Sarris went looking, with GIF support, at Wheeler's set position and concluded that, from the stretch,

I see three different pitches, three distinctly different resting spots for his glove. The curveball is close and at the letters, the fastball shows more separation from his body at about the same height, and the slider comes to a rest close and a little bit lower than the curve.

And since then mostly silence. So far as I can tell, this hasn’t really been talked about since that third start.

***

So the first thing is: Can we see it?

Here are two pitches from Wheeler's first start, against Atlanta. They are, of course, from the stretch, and they both start with his last look at the runner before going home. It's an 0-1 slider on the left, and a first-pitch fastball on the right:

The difference in glove placement is unquestionable.

The rest of his motion seems consistent:

Now here are two pitches from his second start, against the White Sox. They are, of course, from the windup. Slider on the left:

In this case nothing jumps out immediately, but if we slow it down to some individual frames:

He seems to be leaning ever-so-slightly forward before his slider windup. He also maintains eye contact with his target for a longer period when he throws the fastball. I saw this eye contact perhaps a half-dozen times while reviewing Wheeler’s pitches—in some cases, he never looks down at all, maintaining his visual through the entire windup—and in every case it was a fastball. But, then, nearly everything Wheeler throws is a fastball. And he didn’t do it anywhere close to a majority of the time when he was throwing a fastball.

Hey, remember up above when we saw that his gloves starts in a totally different place when he’s about to throw the slider from the stretch? When Eno did this exercise, the slider glove placement was the opposite. So sometimes when Wheeler is going to throw a slider, he tips it by keeping his glove far away from his body. And sometimes when Wheeler is going to throw a slider, he tips it by bringing his glove in close to his body. That doesn’t seem helpful.

***

So, do you think you have a handle on this? What we have here are four pairs. Four pairs isn’t enough to know whether you have a handle on this, but four pairs are as much as many browsers will probably allow. Each pair has a fastball and a breaking ball. I’ll give you the date. You see whether you can actually use the modest information that we’ve collected so far. To refresh your memory, we have discovered that:

  • Moving the glove there are different things to look for
  • The problem was so obvious
  • The problem rests in his arm angle as he sets before he delivers a pitch
  • With a breaking ball he keeps his hands close to his body
  • and a fastball he has his hands away from his body when he sets up
  • With the fastball, Wheeler’s glove was placed on his belt buckle, glove closed with his legs straight. When it was a breaking ball, Wheeler’s glove was placed over his belt buckle, open and his back leg bent
  • The curveball is close and at the letters, the fastball shows more separation from his body at about the same height, and the slider comes to a rest close and a little bit lower than the curve.
  • The exact opposite of what we just said
  • And, when he keeps his head up, he seems to throw a fastball.

So now, the following pitches were picked randomly.

1. First start, vs. Atlanta, June 18

2. Third start, vs. Washington, June 30

3. Fifth start, vs. San Francisco, July 10

4. Seventh start, vs. Atlanta, July 25

***

The answers:

1. The fastball is on the right

2. The fastball is on the right

3. The fastball is on the left

4. The fastball is on the left

How’d you do?

***

Pitch-tipping is just a wonderfully simple explanation for why Zack Wheeler isn’t pitching like Matt Harvey, and I have no doubt that experienced hitters and coaches could and did spot something in those first few starts that I can’t. The question remains how much of that is to blame. For one thing, there’s almost no pitcher in baseball more predictable than Wheeler, who throws his fastball more than 70 percent of the time, has no real changeup to speak of, and is almost always behind in the count. Do you really need to know what pitch Wheeler is about to throw? I just went back and watched 32 pitches and tried to guess based on the count; I got 78 percent right. Imagine what a hitter, with access to scouting reports and years of experience, could do.

Furthermore, we have to assume that Wheeler has fixed the tip by now. His team was certainly aware of it. And yet, after his first three starts, his next three starts were a strong imitation:

  • First three: 16 innings, 13 Ks, 10 walks, three homers, 58 percent strikes
  • Second three: 17 innings, 13 Ks, eight walks, two homers, 58 percent strikes

And then yesterday he struck out five, walked two, hit a batter, allowed two home runs, and fought his way through five innings while throwing 56 percent strikes. Sure, a pitcher who is tipping his pitches will see his strike rate suffer. But a pitcher who isn’t tipping his pitches will suffer with a strike rate like that.

Somewhere back in one of these starts I watched, Ron Darling explained that Wheeler’s problem is that the batters know what’s coming. It’s just maybe not for the reason that’s easily explained and easily fixed. “He’s become predictable,” Darling said, “because his control is lacking.” That's the harder fix, and that's what makes young pitchers beguiling.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Matt Harvey,  Zack Wheeler,  Pitch-tipping

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