When Dan Wheeler relieved J.P. Howell in the 11th inning of tonight's game with the score tied and the Jays three best hitters coming to the plate I'll admit that I was a bit nervous. However, I wasn't as nervous as I usually am when Cardiac Dan steps on the mound. I've written many critical posts of Dan Wheeler this season. Lately it seems like Wheeler has taken those posts to heart.
Tonight, Wheeler pitched two innings of perfect baseball, keeping the score tied long enough for the Rays struggling offense to score the winning run. Wheeler needed only 21 pitches to make it through those two innings, picking up his third win of the season, and genuinely looking good in the process. He threw his fastball 10 times on the night, recording a strike 80% of the time. His best pitch on the night looked to be his slider, which he threw 5 times while again recording a strike 80% of the time. It's this pitch that I want to focus on.
In 2007 and 2008 Wheeler threw his slider 16.3% and 10.9% of the time. This season Wheeler's slider usage has jumped to an eye popping 27.2%, while his fastball usage has dropped from 68.1% to 52.9%. That is an enormous jump and I'm not exactly sure to what it should be attributed. I'm assuming it's something that pitching coach Jim Hickey has actively been trying to get Wheeler to practice, but whatever the reason it seems to be working brilliantly. Ever since the June 6th game at Yankee Stadium in which he allowed two runs in 0.2IP, Wheeler has thrown 12.2 innings, allowing no runs on six hits while not walking a single batter. I'm not saying that throwing less fastballs and more sliders is the only reason for Wheeler's success, he is throwing his change up nearly 8 percent more than last season, but something has obviously been changed in his whole pitching process. Its only 30.2IP of data to look at, but so far his peripheral numbers(LD, GB, FB%, etc) aren't deviating too much from last season. While his BABiP is up to a more realistic .247 from an unsustainable .202, his K/9 is at it's lowest point in six seasons(6.28) yet his BB/9 is lower than it's ever been in his carrer(1.88).
Last season you could look at Wheeler's first half numbers and see that a major regression was sure to come. With his seemingly totally changed pitching philosophy, I don't think the same can be said for 2009.
* the picture of MVB has no relation to the story, I just wanted to use it somehow.