In a long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery, Zack Wheeler has had a season of ups and downs.
Wheeler's last start was emblematic of his year as a whole. Despite having walked four, he had held the Cardinals scoreless until the sixth inning, when he gave up four runs -- and ultimately took the loss.
At times, Wheeler has shown glimpses of the promising -- if sometimes frustrating -- hurler he was in 2013 and 2014, but at others he looks overmatched.
After a slow start to the season, Wheeler seemed to have figured it out in May, when he put up a 2.74 ERA. He has had a particularly rough time since, though, including a stretch of three starts during which he allowed 17 runs over just 7 1/3 innings pitched.
Going deep into games has always been a challenge for Wheeler, who often struggles with wildness and the lack of a reliable put-away pitch, and he is averaging just barely five innings per start -- one of the lowest rates in baseball.
Part of the difficulty with Wheeler is that none of the issues he had before his absence seem to have improved. He still walks 4.0 batters per 9.0 innings, a number largely unchanged during his time in the majors. His strikeout rate, 8.3 per 9.0 for this season and 8.5 for his career, is respectable, but not nearly enough to make his wildness more manageable. And his 18 pitches per inning is actually worse than his career mark.
On top of these persistent problems, Wheeler has seen a huge spike in his home run rate. This is a growing problem for many pitchers in the last few years, but Wheeler's struggles with the long ball are too big to be completely explained by league-wide trends.
Wheeler is more hittable in general, in part due to an increase in hard contact against him (though he is as much of a victim of the Mets defensive woes as anyone).
While it may be tempting to lose faith in Wheeler or relegate him to the bullpen, it's important to remember that he has lost a big chunk of his development time and that the vast majority of pitchers need an extended period to regain their bearings. His velocity has held steady and he hasn't shied away from certain pitches, so it's unlikely that health is a problem.
Wheeler is unlikely to grow into an ace, but he still has the potential to recapture the sub-4 ERA that made him a mainstay of the Mets rotation earlier in his career. In a lost season, the Mets should stick with him and continue to work on keeping the ball down and identifying a reliable pitch for generating soft contact.
If Wheeler puts up similarly mediocre numbers next season, it may be time to make some real changes to his role, but for the time being, he has a lot of work to do and it starts tonight.
Maggie Wiggin (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Archive Posts) has been a Mets fan since birth and a MetsBlog contributor since 2013. She loves throwing hard and hitting hard and hates the DH. When baseball is out of season, she fills her days with data analysis and evaluation and patiently waits for Spring