As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster. Today, we turn our attention to one of the new faces to join the Tribe’s 2012 bullpen: Dan Wheeler.
Background: The not-yet-in-existence Tampa Bay Devil Rays took Wheeler out of high school in the 34th round of the 1996 MLB amateur draft; aside from former Indian Carl Sadler (pitched 30 innings for the Tribe in 2002-3), he is the only player from that round to reach the big leagues. He made his MLB debut in 1999 and struggled in his initial tenure with the Devil Rays (6.43 ERA in parts of three seasons), but established himself as an effective relief pitcher with the New York Mets in 2003 before bouncing to the Houston Astros, back to the Rays, to the Boston Red Sox, and finally to Cleveland on a minor-league deal this winter.
Last year: Wheeler had a down year in 2011, going 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA (98 ERA+) and a 1.11 WHIP in 49.1 innings for the Red Sox. He set a career best with a 4 percent walk rate, but his 19 percent strikeout rate was his worst since 2004 and his .272 BABIP might seem low, it was actually his highest since 2007.
Wheeler’s 3.78 FIP, 3.71 xFIP, and 3.33 SIERA suggest that the 103-point jump in his ERA between 2010 and 2011 was largely due to bad luck or circumstances beyond his control. FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all valued his 2011 performance as between 0.3 and 0.4 wins above replacement.
Key factor: Batting average on balls in play. Wheeler has a history of inducing weak contact (he allowed hit rates under .200 in back-to-back seasons in 2008-9 and his BABIP has surpassed .272 only once since 2005) but it’s not clear just how good he is. His .195, .232, and .272 BABIPs in 2009, 2010, and 2011, respectively, all suggest that opponents didn’t him that hard—but to very different degrees.
Wheeler gives up a lot of home runs (1.23 career HR/9 rate), so despite his strikeout stuff and solid control he needs to induce weak contact in order to be a truly effect pitcher. It will be particularly interesting to see how his hit rate holds up in front of a defense that’s not as airtight as those of his most recent employers, the Red Sox and Rays.
2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:
In one corner: Bill James, who sees Wheeler as a bona fide relief ace whose weak contact-inducing ability will come out in full force (beating his FIP by more than a full run). In the other corner: despite some interesting discordance about how he gets there—note that RotoChamp and Steamer are only four points away in their projected ERAs but 25 point apart in WHIP—a roughly average relief pitcher who’ll give the Indians a few dozen frames out of the ‘pen.
Personally, my favorite part of these projections is that all five systems foresee him allowing exactly 7 home runs. Especially since they all project him for different numbers of innings.
Best-case scenario: James pretty much hits the nail on the head here. A 2.80 ERA would be Wheeler’s best since 2006. A few more innings or a little better home run prevention would be nice, but if he can do that he’ll be a fantastic addition to the Bullpen Mafia.
Worst-case scenario: Wheeler loses his magic touch for inducing weak contact, and the effect is magnified as fly ball after fly ball falls uninhibited into the outfield grass. Despite his impressive (though regressed) walk and strikeout numbers he gives up too many home runs to be an effective reliever, and the Indians end up better off with Frank Herrmann.
Most likely scenario: I like the mean projection here. Despite his homer-prone nature and the hit his BABIP will take from the Indians’ defense he still misses enough bats and throws enough strikes to be an effective pitcher. Fifty innings with a mid-3.00′s ERA would be a great showing for a minor-league signee.