John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
There are ways to explain away Zack Wheeler's disappointing start to his season, from getting "fastball-happy" in his first outing to being a bit out of whack mechanically at home Sunday, when he walked the ballpark.
Furthermore, there were just enough good innings amidst the wreckage, featuring an electric fastball and solid secondary stuff, to believe that Wheeler could right himself quickly and begin living up to the high expectations he created with his spectacular second half in 2018.
But as an NL scout who was at Citi Field on Sunday said, when I asked him on Monday to evaluate Wheeler's latest start:
"It's kind of shocking to see that kind of regression, after what he did last year. He did have some issues mechanically with his delivery, but the elite guys find a way to band-aid their way through something like that. I thought Wheeler had gotten over the hump last year but now you have to wonder."
Hard to argue with that assessment.
I was making the case throughout the offseason the Mets could trust what they'd seen in Wheeler last season, when he pitched to a 1.61 ERA over his final 12 starts, as much for the visible change in body language and confident approach in attacking hitters as his arsenal of pitches.
And I'm not jumping ship based on two starts -- 10.24 ERA and all -- but the scout's take confirmed my own thoughts: that this Wheeler looked alarmingly like the one whose problems with fastball command before and after Tommy John surgery seemed to doom him to a career of mediocrity.
The scout agreed with what Mickey Callaway said on Sunday, that Wheeler was late getting his arm into position, causing it to drag a bit in his delivery, resulting in a lot of fastballs up-and-away to lefthanded hitters.
"And then he'd over-compensate and you'd see him yank the ball wide to the glove side," the scout said. "He was able to clean it up a little for a couple of innings, but then he lost it again. To me that was a bad sign, that he couldn't hold it together after he'd gotten into a little bit of a rhythm."
As bad as Wheeler looked in the second inning on Sunday, giving up five runs, it was perhaps more worrisome that he lost the plate in the fifth, walking four Nationals' hitters -- for a career-high total of seven -- before Callaway pulled him.
For the second straight game, Wheeler became too predictable in throwing his fastball, the scout noted, though in this case it had more to do with falling behind in counts than basically falling asleep mentally, as he did in his first start.
On that day, the Nationals jumped him for three runs on four pitches to start the second inning, attacking first-pitch fastballs as Wheeler became way too predictable. He even said so afterward, admitting he paid for getting "fastball-happy."
It's his responsibility, obviously, but at the time, with young catcher Tomas Nido behind the plate, I noted that Wheeler was one of the starters who benefited last year from having Devin Mesoraco, a thinking man's catcher, calling games for him, allowing him to focus on executing pitches.
Veteran Wilson Ramos did the catching on Sunday, and Wheeler was less predictable, at least when he wasn't constantly falling behind in the count.
In any case, it's worth watching how their relationship develops during the season, and how involved Wheeler gets in calling his own game, knowing how important his slider and his newly-developed splitter were for him when he was dominating last season.
One Mets person concurred, noting Wheeler "was at his best (last season) when he worked quickly, when he got the ball, got his signal and attacked the hitter. It became a mindset for him, and it's easy when you trust the catcher. Hopefully he'll have that type of relationship (with Ramos)."
Whatever factor that may be, the bottom line is it seemed Wheeler had risen above all such ancillary considerations to achieve the dominance that had been predicted for him as far back as 10 years ago, when the Giants made him the sixth overall pick in the draft.
He was too good for too long last season for it to have been a fluke, and it's easy enough to see the stuff is there when he uses all of his pitches and he doesn't have control issues.
Surely it was promising that Wheeler took accountability on Sunday, saying he embarrassed himself. It could also bode well that he believes the issue with his delivery is "an easy fix."
But as the scout said, "If he has to think about his mechanics, and he can't fix them on the fly, then it's possible he just got into a really good place with everything last year that won't be easy to replicate."
Wheeler still has plenty of time to prove what he did last year was the real thing. At the very least, however, his first two starts have raised some doubts about that.