Thursday, July 28, 2011

Zack Wheeler: Is He Nolan Ryan Or Oliver Perez?

The trade of Carlos Beltran to the Giants became official earlier today, as the longtime Mets' outfielder agreed to join the NL West leaders. In return, the Mets received top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2009 Amateur Draft.

Wheeler was ranked No. 55 among all prospects prior to the 2011 season, but moved up to No. 35 in the recently released mid-season rankings. Clearly, Wheeler is expected to someday produce at the major league level or else Sandy Alderson wouldn't have asked for him when he traded away his All-Star rightfielder.

Right now, Wheeler has a slight problem controlling his pitches. Okay, slight might be an understatement when you consider his career minor league numbers.

Since playing in his first professional game in 2010, Wheeler has pitched in 37 games (29 starts). In 146.2 innings, he's walked 85 batters, averaging 5.2 walks per nine innings. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Wheeler has also thrown 19 wild pitches and hit 11 batters.

Let's put these numbers in perspective. There are six pitchers in the National League who have already surpassed 146.2 innings this season. Therefore, it's fair to say that Wheeler has pitched the equivalent of what some National League pitchers have pitched this year.

Currently, J.A. Happ is leading the National League in walks, handing out 60 free passes this season. That's 25 fewer than Wheeler.

Those 19 wild pitches thrown by Wheeler? That's almost twice as many as the National League leader, Hiroki Kuroda, who's uncorked 11 wild ones. No one else in the NL has more than nine.

Wheeler's 11 hit batsmen would also be pacing the National League, as that total surpasses NL leader Randy Wolf by one.

Of course, Wheeler still has plenty of time to work on his control, as he is only 21 years old and will be pitching for the St. Lucie Mets. Still, one can't help but wonder if Wheeler is going to someday challenge for the Triple Crown of Pitching (leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts, as Dwight Gooden did for the Mets in 1985) or the Triple Crown of Wildness (leading the league in walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen).

Nolan Ryan was also wild in the minors, walking 200 batters in his first 291 minor league innings. Then again, so was Oliver Perez, (you thought you'd never see his name in a Studious Metsimus post again, didn't you?) who issued 150 walks in his first 322 professional innings.

Of course, Nolan Ryan learned how to harness his talent and translated it into a Hall of Fame career. Oliver Perez has used his talent to teach his minor league teammates which fast food restaurants are the best in and around Harrisburg, PA, which is where he has toiled as a member of the Washington Nationals Triple-A squad.

Hopefully, the Mets won't promote Wheeler through their minor league system until he has shown improvement with his control. Yes, he's managed to strike out his share of batters (168 Ks in 146.2 innings), but so did Ollie (554 Ks in 517.1 career minor league innings).

It is imperative that the Mets take their time with Zach Wheeler. In a few years, Wheeler might be part of a young pitching staff that includes fellow prospect Matt Harvey, along with 10-game winner Jonathon Niese and nine-game winner Dillon Gee. That staff could rival the 1986 staff, or it could be the second coming of Generation K.

Zack Wheeler is expected to be a big part of the Mets' future. For that to happen, he'll have to put his wild past behind him and focus on improving his control in the present. Nolan Ryan was able to do it. Oliver Perez was not. It's up to Zack Wheeler to figure out if he wants to take a limo to Cooperstown or a bus to Harrisburg.

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