NEW YORK -- For Zack Wheeler and the 2019 New York Mets, the good times don't seem to last very long. Wheeler struck out two in a 12-pitch first inning against the Yankees in the first game of their doubleheader Tuesday afternoon. It was all downhill from there. The Yankees tagged Wheeler for nine runs in the next three innings and change (NYY 12, NYM 5).
The Mets staked Wheeler to a 4-1 lead in the top of the third inning, Jeff McNeil swatted a three-run homer. Wheeler gave the lead back and then some. Gio Urshela hit a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth, and the big blow was Luke Voit's go-ahead three-run home run later that inning..
"Left a slider over the plate to Voit and he made me pay for it. Slider wasn't really good today. Changeup wasn't working. Fastball was about the only thing I had going for me. That and the curveball," Wheeler said following his start. "Voit, I hung the slider like I said. Urshela, inside fastball, and he turned on it ... It is what it is, I guess."
Wheeler's defense did him no favors. Todd Frazier's throwing error on DJ LeMahieu's ground ball extended that fourth inning and gave Voit a chance to hit with men on base. The defense did not give up those home runs, however. Those are on Wheeler. He has now allowed 13 homers in 88 2/3 innings this year. Last season he allowed 14 homers in 182 1/3 innings.
"Any time you're giving up more homers, it's just execution," Mets manager Mickey Callaway said following Tuesday afternoon's game. "It's getting the ball where you want to. You leave it in the middle against the wrong people, they're going to have a chance to do some damage."
To be fair, pretty much every pitcher has seen his home run rate increase this year. Teams averaged 1.15 homers per game last season and it's up to 1.35 homers per game this year, a mark that would shatter the previous single-season home run record (1.26 in 2017). Wheeler's home run rate increase is larger than most though:
HR per 9 innings
0.63 (12th largest in MLB)
HR per fly ball rate
6.0% (12th largest in MLB)
It should be noted Wheeler's other rate stats are excellent and even better than last year in some cases. His strikeout rate has increased from 8.8 K/9 to 10.1 K/9. His walk rate is essentially identical (2.7 BB/9 to 2.6 BB/9). His fastball velocity is up a full mile-an-hour from 95.9 mph last year to 96.9 mph this year. That's all good. The home runs though? Yikes.
Following Tuesday's start Wheeler is sitting on a 4.97 ERA this season, including a 5.54 ERA in his last six starts. This is a pitcher who threw 182 1/3 innings with a 3.31 ERA last season, and had a lower second half ERA (1.68) than teammate and Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom (1.73). The Mets are built around their starting pitching and their starters aren't holding up their end of the bargain. It's not just Wheeler, but he is part of the problem.
Wheeler's general ineffectiveness hurts the Mets in more ways than one. Obviously, it hurts them in the standings. They are 7-7 in his 14 starts and while the offense and bullpen factor into that to some degree, I am comfortable assigning most of the blame to Wheeler when he's allowing this many homers and this many runs in general. The Mets are gradually fading out of the postseason race partly because Wheeler is not performing as expected.
Also, Wheeler will be a free agent after the season, and that makes him a potential trade candidate should the Mets continue to slide in the standings. Teams are smart these days, they'll see through his 4.97 ERA and focus on the improved velocity and strikeout rate, but you can be sure interested trade partners will use the home run issues to drive down his price. Anything that can be used for leverage will be used for leverage.
Perhaps a bidding war prior to the July 31 trade deadline means the Mets will get a nice package for Wheeler no matter his ERA or home run rate. Or maybe he'll turn things around, figure out how to keep the ball in the park, and pitch the Mets back into contention. Crazier things have happened. For now though, Wheeler's ongoing home run issues are hurting the Mets, and he could cost them both in the standings and on the trade market.