Will Zack Wheeler be a smart bet wherever he ends up?
The 29-year old right-handed starting pitcher for the Mets has been front and center in trade talks for days in advance of the MLB deadline. Skeptics have pointed to a 4.69 ERA from a pitcher who missed two seasons after Tommy John surgery as evidence that he’s a dangerous gamble.
A closer look at key indicator stats suggest that Wheeler is likely to be a quality contributor wherever he ends up. Regular readers know he’ll only be a smart bet if the market mis-prices him. That could happen if oddsmakers focus too much on the ERA and not on more appropriate stats.
VSiN has long lauded the value of xFIP, which is a fielding independent measure designed to run along the same scale as ERA. It’s much less vulnerable to pollution than ERA, which makes it a better handicapping stat. It creates a number that captures skill sets, then puts it on a scale you already instinctively know.
When he next takes the mound, Wheeler will have an ERA of 4.69, but an xFIP of 3.86 according to fangraphs.com. That’s very close to Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner. Wheeler isn’t a top five or top 10 pitcher in the majors. But he’s roughly top 25 by this measure. With 30 teams and 150 rotation slots, Wheeler’s obviously a guy you what to have on your roster.
His current ERA is inflated because of what looks to be some bad luck on balls in play. He’s allowed a batting average of .313 on those, compared to .279 last season. And, he was hit particularly hard by the Washington Nationals. Wheeler’s ERA vs. Washington is 7.94, vs. everyone else it’s 2.60. A lot of everyone else’s out there.
If there is a legitimate concern about Wheeler, it would be his tendency to allow home runs in good long-ball environments. He’s given up 16 dingers in 19 starts with this season’s aerodynamically friendly baseballs. Those were in use back in 2017 too, and he allowed 15 homers in only 17 starts (just 14 in 29 starts in 2018 with relatively “normal” balls).
Handicappers need to be aware that a new employer that plays home games in an easy home run park—or who “needs to beat” opponents loaded with sluggers down the stretch—may find that Wheeler isn’t quite what they bargained for.
Baseball handicapping gets complicated. Recreational bettors must train themselves to think of “overpriced” and “underpriced” rather than simply “good” or “bad.” Wheeler is a quality arm, much better than his current ERA suggests. We can’t know yet how he’ll be priced in any uniform come August, September and possibly October.
If you plan on betting the pennant races, this would be a good weekend to run through pitcher stats at fangraphs to log xFIP numbers for all starters on contenders. It will be much easier for you to evaluate money lines and futures prices if you’re fluent in team and player skill sets.