Faith-based analysis: Why to restore the faith in Zack Wheeler

Zack Wheeler ranks second in the PCL with 40 strikeouts. (Steve Spatafore/51s)

Zack Wheeler ranks second in the PCL with 40 strikeouts. (Steve Spatafore/51s)

By Sam Dykstra/MiLB.com

Long-suffering Mets fans far and wide have been waiting for their chance to see Zack Wheeler make his Major League debut, ever since the 6-foot-4 right-hander came to the organization from San Francisco in the 2011 trade deadline deal that sent Carlos Beltran the other way.

After the team’s No. 2 prospect posted a 3.27 ERA in six starts at the Triple-A level in 2012, it was assumed he’d move up to the Majors at some point this season, perhaps sooner than later. But it would all come down to his performance in Las Vegas, the Mets reiterated, as the team was not about to call up their top pitching prospect only to see him wallow and lose precious development time.

Unfortunately for both sides, Wheeler stumbled in his first few outings in the Pacific Coast League. But given his recent performance, it might be time to start thinking once again about Wheeler making the trek to Flushing.

We’ll start with the struggles. Through April 25, the right-hander was 0-1 with 5.79 ERA over his first five starts with the 51s. The biggest troubles stemmed from a relative lack of control. He had walked 15 through 23 1/3 innings over that span, including a six-walk start on April 19, all the while giving up 15 earned runs on 26 hits.

Then came the reasoning behind the struggles. Reports emerged that the 22-year-old had developed — and played through — a blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand. The malady had kept him from throwing his slider and had affected other parts of his game as well. It was believed by the hurler and others that the injury came as a result of throwing in the arid climes of Southern Nevada.

Whatever the case may be, the Pacific Coast League had not been kind to Wheeler in his first weeks in the circuit.

In his last two starts, however, it looks like things have begun to change for the better.

Wheeler — MLB.com’s No. 8 prospect — allowed just one run on five hits and struck out eight in a season-high 6 2/3 innings against Sacramento to earn his first win this season on April 30. He followed that up with his first scoreless outing of the year — six innings of three-hit ball to go with four strikeouts. Most importantly, the hard-throwing right-hander walked just one apiece in each of those gems.

Those two starts allowed Wheeler’s stats to better reflect his potential on the mound. His ERA dropped from 5.79 to an even 4.00 while his walk rate plummeted from 5.8 walks per nine innings to 4.2. (He walked batters at a rate of 3.6 between Buffalo and Double-A Binghamton last season.) His 40 strikeouts ranked tied for second in the PCL, as of late Tuesday.

This isn’t the first time he’s bounced back after a rough introduction to the Triple-A level. As my colleague Jonathan Raymond pointed out, Wheeler did not perform well in his first four starts last year in the International League, going 0-2 with a 4.71 ERA before finishing 2-2 with a 3.27 mark following two stellar starts to close out the year.

“It usually happens every year. There’s a little bit of a slow start, you start making tweaks and adjustments and find it,” Wheeler told Raymond. “I just want to carry it from here. It’s baseball, you know. You gotta make those adjustments and just pitch.”

Among those adjustments were some mechanical shifts that seem to have worked out the kinks from those early performances.

“I was lifting my leg and rotating my shoulders and when we looked at the video, we realized I was rotating too much instead of keeping my shoulders square to the plate,” Wheeler told MiLB.com’s Danny Wild.

Let’s not forget either that, no matter how fast some expected Wheeler to make the biggest jump in baseball, there is plenty of precedent for top prospects going down the same road he is on now. Shelby Miller, 4-2 with a 1.96 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals this season, began last season 4-8 with a 6.17 ERA for Triple-A Memphis. He was 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA from July 14 to the end of the season.

Wheeler’s former and future teammate, Matt Harvey, the Mets’ ace who has wowed the nation with a 1.28 ERA and 58 strikeouts through seven starts this year, didn’t jump out to a great start in his Triple-A debut. His ERA didn’t fall below 4.00 — Wheeler’s current mark — until May 29, despite posting a 5-1 record for Buffalo over that time. He would eventually finish 7-5 with a 3.68 ERA before being called up in late July.

Like Harvey before him, Wheeler has had time to work out his flaws in the Minor Leagues and should be allowed some more time before he takes his talents to Citi Field. Indeed, the early-season blip makes it easier for the Mets to keep him in Vegas and delay the beginning of his arbitration clock. Even so, his last two starts indicate that Wheeler’s prospects for a Major League debut appear closer on the horizon than they did in mid April.

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