Velocity can be a silver bullet of sorts for pitchers. Errors in command don’t always matter when your fastball sits 98-99 mph. What’s more, extreme velocity sets up the other offerings in a pitcher’s repertoire, making them even better in tandem with the heat than they are on their own merits.
For a case study in this truism of baseball, consider Zack Wheeler. More to the point, consider Zack Wheeler in his first showdown with Bryce Harper in a game from last Tuesday. Wheeler shut down the Phillies in that contest, tossing seven shutout innings while allowing five hits, striking out 11 and walking none in a 9-0 Mets victory. Harper faced Wheeler three times. He struck out swinging in his first two plate appearances, and then popped out to the catcher. It was an ugly night for one of the best hitters in baseball.
To be sure, most nights in which Harper has had to face Wheeler have ended in similar fashion for the former. After Wheeler’s domination of Harper on Tuesday, the slugger is now just 5-for-31 with 13 strikeouts and one extra-base hit against him in their respective careers. This column, however, is not about how Wheeler has owned Harper in a broad sense. It’s about how he completely neutralized him with velocity on Tuesday night, and what that means for the pitcher the rest of this season and deeper into the future.
Wheeler has always thrown hard—his average fastball velocity has never fallen below 95 mph for a full season. This year, he has reached a new level. Wheeler returned to the mound in 2017 after a two-year hiatus resulting from Tommy John surgery. That season, his four-seam fastball averaged 95.5 mph. Last year, he upped it to 96.6 mph. This year, Wheeler’s four-seamer averages 97.6 mph. Among starting pitchers, Wheeler’s four-seamer has the second-highest average velocity in the game, trailing only teammate Noah Syndergaard’s.
That’s not the only crucial change with respect to Wheeler’s fastball arsenal this season. He’s throwing his two-seamer far more often than he ever has in his career. Statcast had the pitch’s usage rate at 15.2% last season. This year, Wheeler is throwing the two-seamer 32.2% of the time, and its 97.2 mph average velocity is tied for tops in the majors with Syndergaard’s two-seamer.
The two-seam fastball is a key weapon for Wheeler, especially against lefties like Harper. It’s a pitch he can start in the zone and run away from them, or freeze them with by starting it off the plate inside and sneaking it through the front door. Arm-side movement is a beautiful way to counteract the platoon advantage. In Wheeler’s case, it also helps keep hitters off his four-seamer. The two pitches register the same velocity, but the two-seamer’s late movement makes both of them more effective. Now, when a hitter reads fastball against Wheeler, he can’t be completely sure which one it is.
OK, back to Harper’s first plate appearance from last Tuesday. This was a six-pitch at-bat in which Wheeler got a swinging strike three in a 2-2 count. Every pitch in the sequence was some sort of fastball, starting with three straight two-seamers. Pay close attention to how these three pitches move. The first one is in the zone the whole time, moving from the middle of the plate to the outer-third but missing low. The second one starts in the zone away, but moves off the corner and induces a whiff. The third one is off the corner in, nearly running through the front door.
Notice the run on those pitches? It’s easy to see on the third one, but a bit subtler on the first two. The dead giveaway that the first pitch of the at-bat is a two-seamer is the movement of Wilson Ramos’ glove behind the plate. See how he stabs down for it and almost catches it in the heel of his glove? Compare that with how he receives pitch No. 4, a four-seamer.
On the fifth pitch, Wheeler goes back inside with the two-seamer. Harper is cheating fastball, which is understandable after the first four pitches of the at-bat, and while he’s ready for it, he pulls it comfortably foul.
At this point, Wheeler has Harper set up for the one fastball in his repertoire we have yet to discuss: the splitter. Yes, a splitter and a changeup are often confused for one another, and when you throw as hard as Wheeler does, the latter would have the same effect as the former. Still, Wheeler’s is technically a splitter, and the distinction is key for him. To understand why, take a look at how he grips the pitch, captured beautifully by SNY’s cameras.
That’s a classic splitter grip, and it’s going to generate a spin that’s harder to differentiate from Wheeler’s fastballs than would a typical changeup. That makes the pitch more deceiving, especially when a hitter is geared up for 98-99. Let’s put a bow on this and see how the splitter confounds Harper.
Velocity can be a silver bullet, but it’s not simply velocity at face value. It’s how that velocity manifests itself across a pitcher’s repertoire. As Harper learned again on Tuesday, Wheeler has more ways than one to use his velocity, and it makes him a pitcher to trust as a frontline starter.