Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
A scout who has watched Zack Wheeler for many years sat in the stands at Citi Field on Tuesday night and offered a blunt assessment.
"This is the best I've ever seen him," said the scout, whose team has tried to trade for Wheeler in years past. "Hands down."
Perhaps even more exciting for the Mets, on a night that Wheeler struck out 11 batters in seven scoreless innings in an 8-0 win over Philadelphia, is that the pitcher himself didn't agree. Though pleased with his performance, Wheeler still doesn't think he has his best stuff.
"My slider is bad right now," he told SNY. "I'm getting under it."
Wheeler also said that the split-fingered fastball, perhaps his most important pitch, is not quite where it was in the second half of last season, when he was arguably a tick better than Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.
By his count, Wheeler threw "less than five" splitters Tuesday, and is still searching for the feel for his best version of that key pitch.
That self-critique shows how far Wheeler has come since his early years, when he struggled to command his fastball, and was inconsistent with his offspeed pitches. He knows that his past three starts have been strong -- but he also knows he can be even better.
As a microcosm of all that this current version of Wheeler can do, see the first inning on Tuesday. Leadoff batter Andrew McCutchen saw six fastballs, all either 98 or 99 miles per hour.
Lest Wheeler become too "fastball happy," as he said he was during an earlier start this season, he broke out the curveball and slider in the next at-bat. J.T. Realmuto singled on slider -- the pitch that Wheeler didn't like all night.
Wheeler then used his first splitter to strike out Bryce Harper. This, Wheeler believed, was a good one, diving out of the zone as it was supposed to do.
He finished the inning by getting Rhys Hoskins to whiff on a curveball. Everything about that frame caught the eye, from the life on Wheeler's fastball to the speed differential between his slider and curveball -- low 90s to low 80s -- to the way his splitter dove out of the strike zone.
Wheeler liked his curve on Tuesday.
"That's big for me," he said. "It really helps when I have the curveball," because it changes speeds on a hitter and makes his fastball more effective. Wheeler almost always knows in the first inning if he'll have his good curve -- and on this night, he did.
The only early blemish was pitch count, a common struggle for Wheeler in years past. He threw 22 pitches in the first, and was up to 41 by the end of the second.
But when Wheeler is at his most confident, he picks up the pace and pounds the zone -- and for the next four innings, that's exactly what he did, becoming a much more efficient pitcher than in the first two frames. The phrase he used, which he would not have been able to say with confidence earlier in his career, was "attacking the hitters."
Wheeler's dominant performance could hardly have come at a better time for the Mets, whose rotation this young season has failed to deliver on high expectations. Jacob deGrom is on the injured list, Noah Syndergaard has an ERA near 6.00, and Wheeler had a rough beginning.
Now, he is looking more like the ace-type talent that he finally became last year.
"I'm very close," Wheeler said. "I'm mostly there mechanically, but I want to keep the pitch count down early and attack."