The Wheel deal: Improve fastball command

NEW YORK -- Zack Wheeler "appreciated" the warm applause he received from a dispirited Citi Field crowd as he departed the mound after completing a deflating home debut.

"Obviously I didn't do my best and they still cheered for me," Wheeler said after surrendering five runs in 4 2/3 innings in an eventual 13-2 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on Sunday afternoon. "I'm thankful for that and I had a good time out there."

Zack Wheeler

Zack Wheeler

#45 SP
New York Mets

2013 STATS

  • GM3
  • W1

  • L1

  • BB10

  • K13

  • ERA5.06

After Wheeler breezed through the first inning, striking out his first two batters, he surrendered a first-pitch homer to Adam LaRoche in the second. Three more runs scored in that frame. Jayson Werth homered against Wheeler in the fourth.

"The first inning I was hitting my spots. Everything was working," Wheeler said. "And then I just started leaving some balls up. I'm starting to learn the hard way you can't get away with mistakes up here as much as you do down there."

Coming into the start, so much of the chatter centered on Wheeler tipping his pitches when he faced the Chicago White Sox last week. Pitching coach Dan Warthen had Wheeler adjust the positioning of his glove, placing it at the belt and stationary at the start of his delivery as opposed to up by his chin.

Wheeler maintained that the between-starts renovations were minor and inconsequential to his result Sunday, but manager Terry Collins suggested in retrospect it was somewhere between unwise and unfair to change Wheeler's mechanics so soon into his major league career.

"It wasn't in my head at all," Wheeler said. "Like I said before: It was a simple fix."

Said Collins: "His first start he threw the ball very, very well. No one had seen him. His second start he was OK. And now, all of a sudden, there's screaming, screaming, screaming that he's tipping his pitches. We haven't even let him pitch yet. He's got two games in the big leagues and all of a sudden he has to change everything because his delivery is not the way it should be or whatever. This guy has been here for two weeks and all of a sudden we're trying to tweak something. That's not very fair. You've got to let him go be himself -- certainly try to get him to understand that you've got to throw strikes, but you've got to be yourself out there."

Wheeler's fastball velocity, which commonly pops at 97 mph, often was at 93 later in Sunday's outing. Collins wondered whether Wheeler was purposefully sacrificing velocity to improve fastball control. Catcher John Buck said it was because he was calling for two-seam rather than four-seam fastballs. Wheeler, though, said that might have been the result of a delivery tweak.

"I was doing a little something different with my mechanics today, just toying around. I was trying to keep my front side in," Wheeler said. "It's something that we're just messing around with -- just trying to keep my front side in, finish at the plate instead of falling off."

Asked what he needed to improve upon, Wheeler said without hesitation: "I think it's obviously my fastball command. That's the biggest thing."

Nationals manager Davey Johnson agreed.

"Well, you've got to like his arm," Johnson said. "Good fastball and breaking stuff. But it's command. It's always going to be command up here, no matter how hard you throw."

Said Buck: "You've got to locate your fastball, no matter how hard you throw. ... The one to Werth was just kind of up, middle, belt-high. LaRoche's creeped over the plate a little bit, was kind of middle, heart of the plate and obviously up. He kind of ambushed that."

Johnson did not want to compare Wheeler and Matt Harvey.

"It's unfair to compare anybody right now to Harvey," the Nats manager said. "Harvey is exceptional. He's got the stuff and he's got command. This kid has got the stuff."

Said Collins: "As I said before the game: He's a work in progress. The future is still extremely bright. And the ceiling is extremely high."