12:50 pm: Zack Wheeler is 0-1 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.757 WHIP through five starts with Triple-A Las Vegas this season.
John Harper traveled to Nevada for the Daily News to investigate Wheeler's poor start.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but it’s always in the back of your mind,” Wheeler told Harper about pitching in the Pacific Coast League, which is notorious for its hitter's parks. “It’s hard being from the East Coast, and being used to the humidity, the moisture. Every time after I throw a pitch, I’ve gotta lick my fingers. Sometimes, before I even throw the next pitch, I’ve gotta step off and lick them again because my fingers are already dry again. And the balls are slick as crap. It takes some adjusting.”
His manager, Wally Backman, told Harper he is not concerned, mostly because Wheeler is still hitting 98 mph with his fastball.
I've heard the organization is confident Wheeler will begin to command his pitches sooner than later. If you recall, he struggled with his command at Double-A Binghamton last year, but made some adjustments and began to roll late in the season. Of course, Wheeler didn't have to deal with the elements of the Pacific Coast League or the fact that he's facing better hitters at Triple-A. On top of that, Wheeler had a shortened Spring Training due to the oblique strain, so it's possible he's still trying to find a comfort zone.
None of those are meant to be excuses, though. There's no questioning he's facing some challenges at the moment. He hasn't had consistent command of his fastball this season, and that would be the case whether he was pitching in the Pacific Coast League or International League or even the Major Leagues. The difference is that his margin for error is much smaller out west due to the low humidity and thin air, and the price he's going to pay for his inconsistencies will be higher as a result.
I talked to a talent evaluator who has watched Wheeler this season, and he says Wheeler is pitching well and his advanced stats prove it. However, he’s clearly suffering from the hitter-friendly environment in Las Vegas, as he tells Harper and as Baron points out. If this is true, I wonder if it will impact how soon he is promoted to Queens.
I asked these questions last week, but they continue to be on my mind: Why let him develop bad habits in a ballpark that is not indicative of the rest of reality? If he stays and struggles, will that mess him up physically and mentally? Would it be better to work it out at the big league level, where, despite facing better hitters, he'll be surrounded by veterans and big-league coaches?
Yes, I understand the arbitration and free agent, clock issues, etc. I get it. But I think this kid has to be promoted the minute the team feels it is viable. He’s closing in on 200 upper-level innings. It’s time. Let’s go…