Zack Wheeler: A live-armed enigma
LAS VEGAS -- Zack Wheeler’s minor league career, treated with the scrutiny that a celebrity mag reserves for Jennifer Aniston’s adventures in love, likely ended Thursday night, with a final tuneup in Las Vegas before Tuesday’s Mets debut in Atlanta. And guess what? For all the attention, we still have no idea who this young man is.
Wheeler, who threw 85 pitches, and struck out seven while allowing just one hit (a solo homer) in 5.2 innings in an 11-0 loss to Tacoma on Thursday, is nearly as quiet with teammates and coaches as with media and fans. He repertoire is spectacular, but he remains a live-armed enigma in Metsland, much more so than Matt Harvey was one year ago.
Harvey has always embraced the role of phenom and star, hanging out in Manhattan with Henrik Lundqvist, embracing the hype of matchups with Stephen Strasburg, Roy Halladay and the Yankees, and impressing coaches and teammates at every level with his drive.
Wheeler, teammates and coaches say, is reserved and introverted, harder to read. Triple-A manager Wally Backman, who had to wait longer and work harder to build a relationship with Wheeler than he did with Harvey, offered words of support on Thursday, while noting the contrast.
“They were two different individuals, but they’ve both got great stuff,” Backman said. “Harvey is a little more outspoken than Zack. Zack is a more laid-back type of guy...Harv was the guy who was in the office every day, saying ‘when am I going? When am I going?’ And good for him.”
So Wheeler didn’t do that?
“He has come in, but not every day,” Backman said. “He has loosened up. Zack is a good kid.”
Asked on Thursday about all the hype and attention that will face him over the next several days, Wheeler said, “It’s part of the job. It’s part of baseball. You’re making your first big league start. Eventually you’re going to have to do it...You just go out there and concentrate on pitching.”
Others in the organization, granted anonymity because of the radioactive nature of the subject, have formed a slightly different impression than Backman. One future teammate who observed Wheeler when the the kid was in big league camp this spring came away with concerns about his ability to handle attention and scrutiny in a large market.
“He is going to have trouble in New York,” the player said, comparing Wheeler to another famously taciturn Met. “He might be even quieter than (Lucas) Duda.”
Added a team official in a candid moment: “You know who he reminds me of? A.J. Burnett. Great arm, going to be good, but you wonder about the focus and makeup sometimes.”
Other evaluators have noticed that too, observing that sometimes Wheeler will be cruising along in a dominant performance, then almost seem to glaze over, losing command and beginning to labor. Despite those observations, no one doubts Wheeler’s raw talent. His repertoire is better than Harvey’s was in Triple-A, with fastball about three-to-four miles per hour faster, and scouts have raised comparisons in the Strasburg and Justin Verlander category (a Met fan would probably prefer those to the Burnett comp).
Still, the dynamic in the Harvey/Wheeler comparison has undergone a subtle shift in the past year. Twelve months ago, the Mets’ front office considered “Wheeler an ace, and Harvey a number two or three,” according to one team official. Now, it is unfair to expect Wheeler to outperform Harvey, who transformed himself into an instant sensation once he hit the major leagues, and is already pitching at an All-Star level.
The complexity of interpreting Wheeler was never more evident than in a now-famous spring training incident, when he hit teammate Aderlin Rodriguez for pimping home run in a minor league intrasquad game. Most in the front office where livid with Wheeler, reprimanding him for what they saw as unprofessional conduct. A quieter minority were impressed by the mean streak, and believed that it spoke to his competitive nature.
“I wondered about what kind of kid he was until that happened,” said one team official. “I liked that.”
Said another: “I don’t think anyone was very happy with Zack for that.”
So there you go. Understanding another human being is impossible, and depends on the beholder’s perceptions and values. Wheeler has his fans in the organization, and he has his detractors, but nearly everyone agrees on one point: He’s a difficult guy to know.