Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Best starting pitcher available may shock you

Wheeler's performance over past 2 months has him in elite company
MLB.com @mike_petriello

With just a few scant days before the Trade Deadline, any contender in need of a starting pitcher is looking toward New York, eying the considerable rotation talent of the last-place Mets. They're looking at Jacob deGrom, and they're looking at Noah Syndergaard. They're not going to get either, because the Mets aren't going to trade either, even if they probably should.

Instead, those teams might be best served looking at Zack Wheeler. Somewhat improbably, the oft-injured right-hander has ascended to an unexpected new position: He's the best available starter on the market. Now, in order to believe that, you have to believe the following three statements.

With just a few scant days before the Trade Deadline, any contender in need of a starting pitcher is looking toward New York, eying the considerable rotation talent of the last-place Mets. They're looking at Jacob deGrom, and they're looking at Noah Syndergaard. They're not going to get either, because the Mets aren't going to trade either, even if they probably should.

Instead, those teams might be best served looking at Zack Wheeler. Somewhat improbably, the oft-injured right-hander has ascended to an unexpected new position: He's the best available starter on the market. Now, in order to believe that, you have to believe the following three statements.

First and foremost, you have to believe, as we do, that none of the top aces that are coming up in rumors are actually going to get traded. deGrom and Syndergaard probably won't be moved. Neither will Chris Archer, nor Blake Snell, nor Madison Bumgarner, nor Danny Duffy. Those pitchers are all superior to Wheeler, but the key word here is available. They probably aren't, which means that for Trade Deadline purposes, they basically don't exist.

Second, you have to understand just how weak the starting pitching market is this year, even before Nathan Eovaldi has found a home in Boston and J.A. Happ went to the Yankees. (Also, Garrett Richards is no longer an option after he injured his elbow.) This is why a Yankees team that already had baseball's best bullpen went after Zach Britton; he's basically a luxury add, but there simply weren't any difference-makers available in the rotation.

The list of potentially available starters looks something like this, currently:

Dylan Bundy
Mike Fiers
Michael Fulmer
Kevin Gausman
Kyle Gibson
Cole Hamels
Matt Harvey
Lance Lynn
Tyson Ross
James Shields
Dan Straily

There's a lot of big names there -- All-Stars and postseason heroes -- and it doesn't matter, because this isn't about "name value." It's about what kind of performance a contending team can expect down the stretch, and for the most part, aside from Wheeler and Gibson, it's grim.

Lynn has a 5.23 ERA and the second-highest walk rate of any regular starter; Straily has the highest walk rate of his career. Harvey has been a little better with the Reds than he was with the Mets, but not by much; he's got a 4.50 ERA with Cincinnati and has a below-average strikeout rate. Fulmer is injured, Hamels is having the worst season of a very good career, and Ross has a 5.13 ERA over the last two months. It's simply not an impressive group, though Gibson has made a nice step forward with Minnesota this year.

You might be tempted to lump Wheeler into that mix as well, since his surface level stats don't stand out. But when you look under the hood, you'll find something interesting. First of all, he's been fantastic over the last two months, and correctly or incorrectly, don't think that teams don't look at guys who are "hot" right now.

Over the last two months, Wheeler has been the best of the likely available starting pitchers.

It's that third column, wOBA, that's most important. It's just like on-base percentage, except it gives more credit for extra-base hits than it does for walks and singles. The Major League average wOBA since June 1 is .315, so Wheeler's .273 isn't just good, it's fantastic. There have been 107 starters to throw 40 innings since June 1, and his .273 mark is 17th; it's better in that time than Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, or Justin Verlander.

That doesn't by itself make him better than those pitchers. Two good months aren't more important than years and years of success. But it does bring us to our third important point here, which is this: you have to look past Wheeler's unimpressive surface stats -- 4-6, 4.33 ERA this year, and 25-29, 4.00 ERA for his career -- to judge what he's capable of now. It doesn't matter so much what he did as a rookie back in 2013.

Of course, you only care about the impressive recent results if you can explain in some way what's causing them. In Wheeler's case, this isn't that difficult. To begin with, he's been throwing harder and harder as the season has progressed, adding two mph to his fastball since April.

Tweet from @mike_petriello: Zack Wheeler is finding the 🔥🔥at exactly the right time. (94.4 MPH in April, 96.6 MPH in July.) pic.twitter.com/jafWEY1h94

Since June 1, there have been 223 starters who have thrown at least 50 fastballs. Wheeler's 96.4 mph average ranks ninth, just ahead of deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. That's elite fastball velocity from a starter, and it gives you confidence he's over his slew of arm injuries, starting with Tommy John surgery in 2015 .

But what's most interesting here is that as the fastball is coming in faster and faster, he's using it less and less. Instead, he's using his slider more often, and he's throwing that harder, too. Last year, it came in at 88 mph. This year, it's 90.4 mph, the third-hardest from a starter in baseball, behind only teammates Syndergaard and deGrom.

Tweet from @mike_petriello: Zack Wheeler is basically auditioning for the Yankees already. pic.twitter.com/uQ75WVWjz1

It's a good slider, too; he's allowing a .276 slugging percentage on it, well below the Major League average of .350. Throw in a career-best 8 percent walk rate, and you can see why Wheeler may be more than the sum of his parts. The losing record and unimpressive ERA for a bad team doesn't tell you much. The increased velocity, evolving pitch mixture, and enhanced performance does.

That means that pretty much any contending team in need of a starter, which is to say any contending team outside of Houston and Cleveland, should have interest here. Milwaukee would be a fantastic fit, and not just because they tried to trade for Wheeler three years ago; it's because a rotation still without Jimmy Nelson -- and that just lost Brent Suter to Tommy John surgery -- badly needs depth. Repeat all of that for the Mariners and A's, who are both desperate for starting pitching, and are competing against one another both for an American League Wild Card and for the same starters. Throw in the Cubs, or D-backs, or Braves, or… well, like we said. It's not hard to find a fit.

Wheeler's increasing slider usage would seem to make him an especially perfect fit for the Yankees, who have done the same with A.J. Cole and others, though the acquisition of Happ may take them out of the market.

Again, the argument that Wheeler is the "best available starter" has a lot to do with who else is, well, available. But it doesn't change the fact that the player that the Mets saw such promise in seven years ago when they traded Carlos Beltran for him is finally starting to break through. As such, they don't even really have to trade him, since he's under contract for one more year at a reasonable price, and they won't without a strong return.

But if they're not going to trade deGrom, or Syndergaard, and can't trade Yoenis Cespedes after his season-ending surgery, they have to do something. They have a valuable pitcher in a terrible market. It's the definition of supply and demand. It's the perfect time to make a splash.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.

Zack Wheeler