Sunday, May 25, 2014

Is Matt Harvey's Absence Hurting Zack Wheeler?

Zack Wheeler ponders what life will be like without Matt Harvey by his side.

On June 18, 2013, Zack Wheeler made his highly anticipated major league debut in the second game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves.  Wheeler's opening act, Matt Harvey, took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and struck out a career-high 13 batters in the Mets' 4-3 first game victory.  Wheeler then went out and didn't allow a single run in his start, pitching six shutout innings of four-hit ball in the Mets' 6-1 win in the nightcap.  The evening was billed as Super Tuesday, a night Mets fans had been waiting for since Carlos Beltran was traded to San Francisco for Wheeler in 2011.

Wheeler suffered a few rookie bumps and bruises in his next two starts, but recovered quickly, going 6-2 with a 2.96 ERA in his next 11 starts.  In those starts, covering the months of July and August, Wheeler struck out 59 batters and walked 24.  Control had always been an issue with Wheeler in the minors, but in his strong 11-start stretch, he walked more than three batters in a game just once.  Wheeler also showed durability and an ability to keep his pitch count per inning down, as he pitched six or more innings in eight of the 11 starts, while averaging 16.8 pitches per inning.

Matt Harvey, on the other hand, pitched beautifully throughout the 2013 season.  But when he allowed 13 hits to the Detroit Tigers in 6⅔ innings on August 24, it caused concern that something was wrong with the Mets' All-Star Game starter.  The effort against the Tigers was part of a three-start stretch in which the normally unhittable Harvey allowed 27 hits in 18⅔ innings.  In addition, Harvey wasn't getting strike three as often as he was earlier in the season.  After striking out 178 batters in his first 159⅔ innings, Harvey managed just 13 punchouts in his last three starts, or as many as he had in his Super Tuesday start against the Braves in June.

Soon after his start against the Tigers on August 24, it was revealed that Harvey had a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.  By the time the calendar had turned to September, Harvey's season was done.  And a month later, when Harvey decided to undergo Tommy John surgery, his 2014 campaign was wiped out as well.

Once it was known that Harvey would not be around to pitch for quite some time, Wheeler's fortunes began to turn.  Wheeler was 7-3 with a 3.46 ERA through his last start in August.  But without Harvey to compete with in the rotation, Wheeler had a poor month of September.  Wheeler was 0-2 in three starts and walked as many batters (12) as he struck out.  After posting a 1.25 WHIP in July and August, Wheeler allowed 28 baserunners in his three September starts for a 1.65 WHIP.

Some of the misfortune in September could be attributed to Wheeler's workload.  After all, prior to 2013, Wheeler had never pitched more than 149 innings in any minor league season.  He surpassed that total in his final start in August and finished the year with 168⅔ innings between the minors and majors.  That could help explain Wheeler's subpar finish after Harvey's season was done.  But Wheeler, like every other pitcher, began the 2014 season at zero innings.  To what do we attribute his poor pitching this year?

In ten starts this season, Wheeler has pitched just 56 innings, posting a 4.31 ERA and 1.51 WHIP.  After a 2013 campaign in which Wheeler allowed opponents to bat .243 against him and reach base at a .327 clip, this year's batters are hitting .271 and have a .355 on-base percentage against Wheeler.  Wheeler has also needed to throw 1,003 pitches to get through those 56⅓ innings - an average of nearly 18 pitches per inning.  In four of his ten starts this year, Wheeler has tossed 110 or more pitches.  He has yet to pitch more than 6⅔ innings in any of those starts.  In 2013, Wheeler pitched at least 6⅔ innings six times.  He threw 110 pitches just once in those six starts.

Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler were supposed to be a modern-day version of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, leading a young pitching staff to victory and erasing half a decade of frustration in Flushing.  But Harvey is now lost for the 2014 season and Wheeler just looks lost on the mound.  There is another parallel between the Harvey/Wheeler duo and the Seaver/Koosman combo.  When Seaver was traded to Cincinnati on June 15, 1977, Koosman suffered greatly on the mound.

Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, during happier times with the Mets.  (Photo by D.R. Burke/The Sporting News)

Prior to the Midnight Massacre, Koosman had begun the 1977 season with a 5-6 record and 2.82 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .208/.285/.299 slash line.  After Seaver's departure, Koosman went 3-14 with a 4.02 ERA, allowing hitters to put up a .250/.313/.371 slash line.  In 1978, Koosman's only full season with the Mets without Seaver, he had arguably his worst full season as a Met, going 3-15 with a 3.75 ERA and 1.30 WHIP.

In one and a half seasons without Seaver by his side, Koosman went 6-29 with a 3.84 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.  With Seaver around from the time both pitchers made their debuts in 1967 until The Franchise's trade a decade later, Koosman posted a 134-108 won-loss record with a 2.97 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.  Clearly, Koosman was far more effective when he had a teammate like Seaver to compete with.  He was a totally different entity when he didn't share a dugout with Seaver.

This analogy doesn't just apply to dynamic duos in baseball.  Take the case of Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan in the NBA.  Just like Koosman was a great pitcher but was always second fiddle to Seaver, Pippen became a Hall of Famer despite rarely being the best player on his own team.  During the Chicago Bulls' first three championships from 1991 to 1993, Pippen connected on 50.0% of his shots and made 71.4% of his free throws.  When Jordan retired for the first time, Pippen was forced to become the go-to guy in Chicago and his averages suffered.  During the '93-'94 season and '94-'95 campaign, Pippen made just 48.5% of his shots and his free throw percentage dropped to a below-average 68.5%.  Once Jordan came back, the Bulls won three more titles and Pippen became more effective, but after the Bulls broke up the band following their sixth championship in eight seasons, Pippen suffered.  After averaging over 20 points per game in his last eight seasons in Chicago, Pippen averaged just 11.5 PPG during his final six campaigns in the NBA.  His shooting also suffered, as he made just 43.6% of his shots from the field after winning his final championship in Chicago.

With Jordan, Pippen won six championships and played most effectively.  Without him, he made it past the second round of the playoffs just once and put too much pressure upon himself to be the same player he was when Jordan was with him on the court.  The same could be said for Jerry Koosman when Seaver was his teammate on the Mets and when he wasn't.  And now it appears Matt Harvey's absence could indirectly be affecting Zack Wheeler's performances on the mound.

Zack Wheeler has always been a very good pitcher since he was first drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2009.  But he doesn't project the dominant persona of a Matt Harvey on the mound.  Harvey was always meant to be the big man on campus, and Wheeler was supposed to complement him as the No. 2 guy.  As a one-two punch in 2013, Harvey and Wheeler performed very well together, giving Mets fans hopes that the 2014 season would be the year the team finally turned it around.

But then Harvey suffered an injury that ended his 2013 season prematurely and erased his 2014 campaign completely.  That left Wheeler alone on the mound and thrust him into the spotlight once reserved for Harvey.  Wheeler has been less effective without Harvey by his side, just like Koosman and Pippen were less successful once their legendary teammates weren't there to push them to do better things.

Zack Wheeler is still a good pitcher.  But he's much better when he's just "one of the guys" and not "the guy".  The Mets will be better in 2015 when Matt Harvey returns to the mound.  Let's hope we can say the same for Zack Wheeler.

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