Zack Wheeler Could Be Great In The Bullpen
During Terry Collins‘ first Spring Training press conference, he overtly stated Zack Wheeler is a starting pitcher. With the Mets publicly considering using Wheeler in the bullpen, at least to start the season, Collins’ statements reminded me of how Bobby Valentine once held a similar opinion about Jason Isringhausen.
Back in 1999, the Mets were using Isringhausen, who had a litany of injuries and surgeries at that point, increasingly out of the bullpen. It was a natural fit for him with his having only made six major league starts over a two year period. And yet, Valentine preferred using Isringhausen in the rotation, as only Valentine could so eloquently put it, putting Isringhausen in the bullpen is like “us[ing] an Indy car as a taxi in New York City.” (New York Daily News).
As we know Isringhausen would be moved later that season in the ill-fated and ill-conceived trade for Athletics closer Billy Taylor. As an Athletic, Isringhausen would work exclusively out of the bullpen. From there, he would become an All Star closer amassing 300 career saves.
Given the relative injury histories, the reluctance to put the pitchers in the bullpen, and the hope both pitchers carried with them as part of future super rotations, the Wheeler-Isringhausen comparisons are unavoidable.
To that end, it is important to note one of the supposed issues with Isringhausen in the bullpen was his control. This is certainly understandable given his career 1.520 WHIP and 4.0 BB/9 as a starter. And yet, when moved to the bullpen, and allowed to focus on his two best pitches, Isringhausen dramatically cut down on the hits and walks. As a result, the things that made people believe he was a dominant starter came into focus as he became a dominant closer.
The consistently noted fear with Wheeler in the bullpen is his control. His 3.9 BB/9 is similar to what Isringhausen’s was as a starter even if his 1.339 WHIP is considerably better. It should also be noted Wheeler struck out more batters than Isringhausen did as a starter. That is probably because Wheeler’s pure stuff is probably better than Isringhausen’s. According to Brooks Baseball, Wheeler’s fastball sits in the mid 90s and he has a slider that almost hits 90.
Understandably, with Isringhause and Wheeler being different pitchers, the comparison may seem a bit contrived or imperfect. With that said, we have seen how the Royals have transitioned pitchers with similar skill sets to Wheeler, and they converted them into dominant relievers.
Luke Hochevar was a struggling starter who gave up too many walks. He was not having success in the rotation despite a low to mid 90s fastball and a high 80s cutter. He was transitioned to the bullpen where he thrived. Before showing the effects of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, he was dominant in 2013 going 5-2 with a 1.92 ERA, 0.825 WHIP, and a 10.5 K/9.
While the Royals didn’t try Greg Holland in the rotation, they saw how well his stuff played in the bullpen. From 2011 – 2014, he was among the most dominant closers in all of baseball. Over the stretch he was 15-9 with 113 saves, a 1.026 WHIP, and a 12.6 K/9. Similar to Wheeler, Holland throws a mid to high 90s fastball and a slider in the high 80s.
Basically what we see in Isringhausen, Hochevar, and Holland is pitchers with great stuff can truly succeed in the bullpen. Moreover, pitchers who have had control issues as starters can better harness their pitches by focusing one the two or maybe three pitches they throw best and work out of the stretch. By focusing on what makes the pitcher great can, at times, led a pitcher down the path to greatness. That is even in the event said greatness occurs out of the bullpen.
Given Wheeler’s past control issues, his not having pitched in two seasons, and the emergence of both Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, it might be an opportunity for the Mets to move Wheeler in the bullpen where he may truly thrive. Of course, we won’t know that unless the Mets are willing to try. At this point, given Collins’ statements, it appears the Mets are not quite at that point yet. Maybe they should be.
Editor’s Note: this was first published on Mets Merized Online