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Exploring a Zack Wheeler trade

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Looking at a potential Zack Wheeler trade for expectations of performance and cost.

Zack Wheeler sure does look good in an Astros Jersey

As the trade deadline approaches, we continue to explore potential options for the Astros to improve their team. We did an article looking at the potential financial challenges facing the Astros next year as the Competitive Balance Tax threshold looms without an easy answer as to how they will stay below it.

Wheeler would be a pure rental, and therefore while not solving any long term issues, provides us with an additional starter as we make another historic push into the playoffs. I know what you may be thinking, why do we want a player with an ERA near 5? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that and why I think he would be a good fit for the Astros.

Who is Zach Wheeler?

The 29 year old Right Handed Pitcher, was the 6th overall pick in 2009 for a $3.3 Million dollar signing bonus. As a 6’4, 185 lb pitcher and the ability to dial up to the upper 90’s, he obviously drew attention through his inconsistent performances in the minors occasionally flashing dominance. John Sickels had him as a prospect of the day twice, here was his notes on him back in 2012:

Wheeler is a 6-4, 185 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born May 30, 1990. His key pitch is a 93-97 MPH fastball, a plus pitch with both velocity and impressive movement. He utilizes a slider/cutter, a power curve, and a changeup. The curveball is his best secondary pitch but all of them have strong potential. Statistically, his excellent dominance ratios provide objective confirmation of the quality of his stuff. His biggest issue has been simple command. He threw strikes much more efficiently after going back to his high school mechanics last summer, but his walk rate has spiked upward again this spring, granted the rest of his numbers remain excellent.”

MLB Performance

Wheeler has been a polarizing figure, with 3 seasons in the Low-Mid 3’s, and two at basically 5. Combine that with an injury history that includes DL stints for a Fingernail avulsion (2012), Tommy John Surgery, Bicep tendinitis, Streaa reaction in right arm, etc and I can easily see why people will balk at him as a potential trade target.

So why am I writing an article about him as a trade candidate when he’s barely under a 5 ERA this year? Well, there’s 2 parts to that discussion. The first is related to advanced stats, which view his year significantly different than the traditional ones do. While his 4.87 ERA doesn’t look aw-inspiring, his FIP (3.74), xFIP (3.84) and SIERA (3.89) all tell a much rosier story.

So why is his ERA inflated? Well, he’s had a fairly perfect storm of bad luck. His LOB% is at 65.1%, a stat that basically every pitcher in baseball will end up in the 70-72% range, a stat that has shown to not be in the control of a pitcher. Higher K/9 pitchers will generally be slightly towards the higher end, and Wheeler would fit that bill and is well below where one would expect.

That’s a start, but there’s more. His HR/FB is at 14.1%, a stat that basically averages for every pitcher in the 8-12% range, and Wheeler’s career 11% fits that logic. Again, Fangraphs found this statistic to largely be out of the control of a pitcher as to what %, especially without a significant change in his batted ball profile.

His BABIP (.313) and xwOBA also show indications of poor luck. Additionally, Wheeler currently is throwing his highest K/9, lowest BB/9, and averaging 6.1 IP per start so far this year.

So let’s say you do agree with me that Wheeler has been unlucky, and there’s a strong chance of regression to him performing as a high 3 ERA pitcher, why would the Astros want him even at that level? Well, simply it comes down to his arsenal.

Wheeler’s Arsenal

Statcast

Now I get it, I’m really into the statcast side, so for those of you who are not as familiar, there are a few key items of note on here. First off, Wheeler not only has elite velocity, he has elite spin rates. His pitches fit perfectly into the Astros’ model for high velocity, high spin pitchers that they’re able to use pitch tunneling to maximize value out of, very much the same way they did with Cole and Verlander. To the point, I was shocked how eerily similar Wheeler’s arsenal was to Cole’s in 2017 when the Astros decided to acquire him.

Statcast / Baseball-Savant

Wheeler, like Cole, relied on their fastballs as primary pitches, which makes sense given the velocities of the pitches. Wheeler actually outranks Cole in both the velocity and spin rates, which is not something to be scoffed at. Wheeler also paces fairly well, although not quite the same in velocity separation and spin rates of his Curve and Slider.

Looking at the movement on their pitches, again the two are very similar. On their pitches their (Vertical / Horizontal) Movements were

4 Seamer - Cole ( 8.65 /-7.23) vs Wheeler (8.23 / -7.19)

Slider - Cole (1.61 / 1.87) vs Wheeler (3.78 / 0.62)

Curveball - Cole (-4.42/6.95) vs Wheeler (-6.72 / 4.30)

Very similar movements on their fastballs. Wheeler’s breaking pitches feature a larger changes in their height but less slide to them.

If Wheeler came to the Astros, I would see them changing his pitch usage significantly. I would see the Astros vastly reducing his reliance on the Sinker and put an increased focus on his 4-Seamer at the top of the zone, and increased usage of his Slider/Curveball. His 4-Seamer has also performed much better than his Sinker, so it’s surprising the Mets look to have guided him to increased usage of the Sinker.

The Astros seem to be advocates of utilizing a theory similar to Bauer units. While I’m still disappointed in the naming structure, it is an interesting theory in which Strom has spoken to.

In very simplified terms, due to Magnus Force, the spin rate of a pitch will effect how a pitch will move. A High Spin Rate 4-Seam Fastball will actually cause the ball to “rise” (or not sink as much as anticipated), causing batters to swing under the pitch. And on pitches that sink such as Curveballs/Sliders - it will increase the movement. If you tunnel the two together, it makes it very difficult for a batter to track a pitch.

Truthfully, I may do an entire article on Pitch Tunneling and Effective Spin Rates (“Bauer Units”) as it’s not easy to give enough detail in a paragraph burst for understanding.

But in my honest opinion, Wheeler is a near perfect candidate for the “Strom Magic” that we’ve all come to grow and love.

What would it Take?

Well, as always, trading seems to be as much of an art as a science, but I will try to take a logical approach to developing the trade value of Wheeler and what mathematically would be a fair trade on our side. I am always open to criticism, or differences in ideas on this component as it’s not as carved in stone.

Zack Wheeler was originally predicted to be worth 2 WAR this year, largely due to the limited expected innings (100-103). Through 88 IP, he’s at 1.8 which is almost exactly the anticipated pace. With Wheeler seemingly healthy, I will utilize a projection of him pitching the same number of innings as last year (182.1). That would give us a 3.7 WAR season, which I think from a trade value is probably very slightly high, but we’re talking about a mid-season rental and a pitcher with a ton of potential, so I’ll go with it.

Wheeler is on the last year of his deal, so no future value is needed to be added. And we will use a July 1st trade date, for simplicity sake as it makes calculations easier (50% of the season remaining for a Salary and WAR perspective).

Figuring 1.8 war (remaining) x $9 Mil / war figure = $16,200,00 Million in Value

2019 Salary- $5.975 Mil * 50% (remainder of season) = $2,987,500 Mil in cost

Total excess value - $13.2 Million in Excess Value

You can use Fangraphs Prospect Valuation and their article on putting a dollar value to prospects outside of the Top 100, to work backwards to build something that comes to a similar value. These rankings were pre-season which obviously makes a difference in their perceived values, but it’s a good starting point.

$13 Million of excess value came in at roughly #115 on the top 131 prospects that Fangraphs did, and looks like it would be a lower end 50 FV on a 1-for-1 trade. I do believe that the Astros would look to trade from their upcoming roster crunch and would likely package multiple prospects instead of it being a true 1-for-1 trade.

Conclusion

For those who are firm believers in traditional stats, I’m sure nothing in this article has made an impact and will have a quick response of “No”, and admittedly I wasn’t over the moon with Wheeler as a trade candidate when I started the article. But he truthfully fits the Astros model of “Strom Magic” and would be an ideal turn-around candidate.

His current contract status easily fits within the Astros payroll restrictions, and he would provide another layer of security with a potential third ace for the play-offs if I am correct in regards to the changes in his arsenal. Ideally, the Astros would work to negotiate a short-term extension with him prior to Strom working his magic. I’m not sure on how realistic that is, as Wheeler may still believe he can get a nice Free Agent deal due to his past flashes of success.

I would personally love for the Astros to trade for Wheeler and Seth Lugo (I looked at a trade for him in the off-season).

Poll

Would you want the Astros to trade for Zack Wheeler?

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    Yes
    (159 votes)
  • 13%
    No
    (42 votes)
  • 34%
    Meh
    (104 votes)
305 votes total Vote Now