Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler: Can They Be Twin Aces?

By: Brian Mangan

And I don’t mean Twins as in the lovable 1988 comedy film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito (or as in Little Big League, the baseball movie involving the Minnesota Twins).

On the eve of Zack Wheeler’s promotion to the major leagues, now is an appropriate time to take a look at his resume next to the player with whom he is commonly compared: current Mets’ ace Matt Harvey.  I figured that the comparisons between the two were the function of lazy journalism — “Hey look, tall, right-handed white guys with great fastballs!”.

The desire to make a relatable comparison is always there, both for journalists and for fans who hope that Wheeler can replicate Harvey’s incredible major league success.  For those who may have been under a rock for the last year (or frozen in a block of ice, like in the cherished 1992 classic Encino Man) Harvey has put up a 2.35 ERA over his first 23 starts, striking out 9.9 batters per nine innings, and currently sits third in the National League in ERA, WAR and innings.

However upon looking at the numbers, I was surprised to learn that the two men, although they have taken slightly different paths through the lower minor leagues, have actually ended up as statistical dead-ringers for one another.

Physical Attributes and Amateur Experience

Matt Harvey was drafted in the first round after three years as UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was moderately successful.  He truly emerged during his last year in college, shooting up draft boards as a huge right-hander with a live fastball and room to grow, but overall he underachieved in college.  At the time of the draft, he was listed at 6’4″ and 210 lbs.   A website called Rule 4 Report (named after the “rule” establishing the amateur draft) did a good job of summarizing what I remember of Harvey at the time:

Harvey’s combination of physicality, present velocity and potential stuff is tantalizing, but he is considered something of an underachiever because the results over three years in college didn’t match the talent.  His past struggles can be mostly attributed to a lack of command (and at times, control), which, if resolved, could result in him becoming a No. 2 starter at his peak.  (link)

Overall, despite his plus-velocity (up to 98mph), secondary pitches that “flashed plus”, and large frame, most viewed Harvey as a prime draft pick with a limited ceiling.

Zack Wheeler, unlike Harvey, was drafted out of high school and viewed as a player who, although raw, had a very high ceiling.  His fastball was said to have “tremendous life” and that he was highly regarded for his “work ethic and mound presence.”  (link).  Wheeler was also listed at 6’4″ at the time of the draft, but was younger and had a lankier build than Harvey, listed at only 170 lbs.  The consensus was that Wheeler, though he carried the same modicum of risk as any other high school draftee, had “considerable” upside thanks to his poise and 95mph fastball.  (link)

Lower Minor Leagues

This is where the comparison begins to come into focus.  Upon entering the minor leagues, Harvey succeeded immediately.  Playing his first season in the minors at age 22, Harvey carved up Single-A St. Lucie to the tune of a 2.37 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 10.89 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9).  Upon promotion to Double-A Binghamton, he acquitted himself well with a 4.53 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, but maintained a high strikeout rate of 9.65 K/9 in his 59 innings there.

Wheeler entered the minor leagues one year younger than Harvey due to being drafted out of high school, but was assigned one level lower in the system.  This makes the comparison between the two men almost perfect.  In Low-A Augusta, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants (the team by which he was drafted), Wheeler posted a 3.99 ERA and 10.74 K/9, but had a 1.45 WHIP due to a very high walk rate.

He was promoted to Single-A the following season, and split the year between San Jose and St. Lucie as he was traded to the Mets mid-season as part of the ballyhooed Carlos Beltran trade.  Overall, Wheeler did quite well and showed progress in the refinement of his game, posting a 3.52 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 10.10 K/9 between the teams while reducing his walk rate.  He began 2012 in Double-A, and pitched very well before a brief cameo in Triple-A at the end of the year.

Both players saw their stock — already high — rise as they continued their prolific tours through the minors.  Wheeler went from the #49 prospect according to Baseball America (before ever throwing a pitch), to #55, to #35, to #11 before 2013.  Harvey went from unranked to #54 prior to the 2012 season.

Triple-A and Overall

It is the Triple-A statistics and overall statistics that best illustrate the incredible statistical parallel between the two.

Harvey (Triple-A)(age 23): 3.68 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 3.93 BB/9, 9.16 K/9

Wheeler(Triple-A)(age 22-23): 3.84 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 3.84 BB/9, 9.09 K/9

Obviously, these lines are almost identical.  In reality, Wheeler’s is slightly more impressive given that the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate moved from Buffalo to Las Vegas between 2012 and 2013, and Las Vegas is a much better environment for hitters, but overall the statistical output is similar.  Both players struck out plenty of batters and prevented runs at a good rate while walking a few too many.  Harvey had just turned 23 (on March 27th) before his Triple-A run, while Wheeler turned 23 at the end of May, making him only two months younger at the same level, a negligible difference.

The same applies when we look at their overall minor league performances.  Harvey’s is slightly better, but once again, Wheeler entered the minor leagues one year earlier and had his worst season of all at that lowest level, Low-A Augusta.

Harvey (246 innings): 3.48 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 3.48 BB/9, 9.80 K/9

Wheeler (386 innings): 3.84 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 4.06 BB/9, 9.63 K/9

How Useful is this Comparison?

Just like any scout or beat writer can make the comparison I alluded to in the introduction (tall, right handed, white dudes!), any stathead can make the same lazy comparison by looking at the raw numbers (or, if you’re Bleacher Report, you can make wild prognostications with no support at all).

Every Mets fan out there is praying to their Tom Seaver bobblehead that the above statistics guarantee that Wheeler will make the same leap that Harvey did in becoming a legitimate ace.  Unfortunately, no such guarantee exists.

The fact of the matter is that it is well-documented that Harvey’s major league success was a surprise to most talent evaluators.  His performance in the minor leagues was good, not phenomenal, and did not portend his incredible performance over the last year.  Remember – this is the same man whose ceiling was supposed to be that of a #2 starter, and who was knocked around by measly college hitters just a few short years ago.

Wheeler’s resume is similarly pretty good, not phenomenal, although it is given additional gravitas by the comparison most are making between Wheeler and Harvey. At the same time, the annals of Mets history are littered with prospects who had statistics superior to both Harvey and Wheeler but whose careers never panned out.

FN My favorite example was Yusmeiro Petit, who posted a 2.20 ERA in Single-A and Double-A at the age of 19, and then a 3.60 ERA in Double-A and Triple-A the next year, while striking out over 11 batters per nine innings along the way.  Petit now owns a 10-20 win-loss record in the majors with a career 5.54 ERA.  He hasn’t pitched more than five innings in the majors since 2009, and even pitched in the Mexican Leagues in 2011.  He’d make for a very interesting “where are they now?” piece.  Brian Bannister had a career 3.29 ERA in the minors along with a 1.18 WHIP and 7.7 strikeouts per nine.  

Fortunately for Mets fans, unlike many others who have failed before him, Wheeler not only has the statistics but also has the “stuff”, i.e. plus-pitches, that make him likely to stick in the big leagues for a long time.  Although comparing him to Harvey isn’t fair, Wheeler has a chance to be very, very good, and to do so very soon.  Or at least, that’s what I’ve been praying to Tom Seaver for.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who grew up in Flushing, New York.  He has no choice but to be a Mets fan, despite the two or three times he legitimately swore that he was going to quit them. 

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