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Prospects In Action: Zack Wheeler, RHP, Augusta GreenJackets – May 12, 2010

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If you’re a first round pick or a budding superstar, chances are you don’t want me in the stands when it’s your turn to take the bump.

A few weeks ago, I coaxed a bad start out of the Rome Brave’s Arodys Vizcaino.

And last Wednesday, I hexed the Augusta GreenJacket’s flamethrowing righty Zack Wheeler. In just 2.2 miserable innings, Wheeler gave up six hits, six earned runs, three bases on balls, two wild pitches, and a hit by pitch.

How’s that for a line?

I wanted Wheeler to do well last night. I mean, I really did. About six months ago, I wrote this post about Wheeler. It basically put me behind the wheel (no pun intended) of the Wheeler bandwagon, before there even really was one. There’s just something about a 6’4″ righthander that touches 95 miles per hour that intrigues me like nothing else but maybe a pizza with a donut topping.

But as is the course of the last couple weeks, another big prospect left town a beaten man, leaving me wondering how much longer I can continue this bad luck streak of awful starts by good pitchers.

When the night started, it looked like Wheeler was ready to deal. His bullpen session left the family next to me confounded; they hadn’t seen anyone with the velocity of Wheeler and they weren’t afraid to repeatedly admit it, noticing my notebook and hoping I was someone who could quote them in something worthwhile.

And even the catcher, Tommy Joseph, was feeling good about their chances: “Ah, it’s just an 88 mile per hour changeup. No big deal!”

And, like clockwork, Wheeler’s first inning went well.

His fastball sat at 95-96 according to the stadium gun, a pretty big bump from the 93 he had been previously reported at. One pitch caused a buzz amidst the Charleston fans when it registered at 99 miles per hour on the big board. It was an obvious glitch in electronics, an outlier of the purest sense, but a cool glitch, nonetheless.

The first thing I noticed about Wheeler was his delivery. It features an odd hesitation with his lead foot; instead of using the weight of his right leg to propel his arm and body weight forward, he basically takes it out of the mix, dangling it over the forward part of the mound until his snake-like right arm reaches its pinnacle and begins its downward movement. Only then does he finally drop the foot. The hesitation, once spotted, seems very out of place for a power pitcher. In person, it’s much more pronounced than in any of the video I’d previously seen.

You can clearly see that he is not consistently repeating the movement in this video. On the first pitch, the hesitation is apparent, but by the third pitch, there’s almost no delay.

That being said, Wheeler generates tremendously easy velocity from his tall, broad, and lanky frame.

His changeup had good running movement, coming in at 87-89 miles per hour. He didn’t throw many curveballs, which was a major disappointment since I’ve heard it’s a good looking pitch. When he did throw it, it spun in almost exclusively at 78 miles per hour. It has a tight rotation and looks like it could be a true power curve. My only notes are: “78, 78, 78, small break.”

In the first, Wheeler gave up just a run on a bloop single to left field.

But that’s just about all the positives I have to report. Check out this recap of Wheeler’s second inning:

  • Deangelo Mack grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.
  • Garrison Lassiter strikes out swinging.
  • Kelvin Castro singles on a fly ball to right fielder Ryan Lollis.
  • With Raymond Kruml batting, passed ball by Thomas Joseph, Kelvin Castro to 2nd.
  • Raymond Kruml singles on a ground ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Kelvin Castro scores.
  • Jimmy Paredes doubles (5) on a fly ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Raymond Kruml scores.
  • Justin Milo singles on a ground ball to left fielder Dan Cook. Jimmy Paredes scores.
  • Luke Murton walks. Justin Milo to 2nd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Justin Milo scores. Luke Murton to 3rd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Luke Murton scores.
  • Robert Lyerly grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.

It was ugly. When Joseph allowed the passed ball, it looked like there was a breakdown in communication between the battery mates. However, that wasn’t my biggest concern.

In the second inning, Wheeler’s velocity dropped almost four miles per hour. Instead of the 94-96 he was tossing in the first, his first five pitches in the second were 90, 91, 90, 92, and 90. And it remained there for much of the inning. He got back up to 94 during the Luke Murton at-bat, but the results were just not there.

Was he pitching with adrenaline in the first? Did he over-exert himself? Or had he just lost control?

I don’t know. But I do know that to the semi-trained eye, each time an abbreviated velocity reading popped on the board during the second, I put a mini red flag up. And when he lost all control during the second half of the second inning, I was reminded of something I saw during the bullpen session.

While working in the bullpen, Wheeler would start his windup, then look down to see where that lagging lead foot was, and then continue on.

I do not know if the pause I saw was present when he pitched in high school. But to me, it certainly looked more pronounced and intentional. It did not look like he was quite comfortable with it yet and it looked like something he was thinking about. And when you pitch, you don’t want to think.

Strangely enough, Augusta’s manager sent him back out there for the third. His velocity returned, but after a hit-by-pitch and a nasty walk, Wheeler’s night was over.

So, there it is. I wish I could send San Francisco fans revelatory information about the ace potential of Zack Wheeler, but I simply can’t. I’m still confused by what I saw.

For one inning, Zack Wheeler looked every bit the $3.3 million San Francisco thinks he is worth. But for the next 1.2 innings, he looked every bit Jason Grilli, the last pitcher the Giants picked up in the first round.

We’ll just have to wait.

Note: That obnoxious high-pitched voice isn’t me. That little rat ruined made my night a living hell.

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