Like most veteran (non-closer) relief pitchers, Dan Wheeler is not considered a true value because of his salary. Since re-joining the Rays in 2007, he has a cumulative wins above replacement level (WAR) of 0.7; however, he has made over six million dollars. In 2010, he will be the second highest paid pitcher with a $3.5 million salary.
Other than price tag, Wheeler does provide a certain value to the Rays. In my mind, Wheeler has been a serviceable reliever, who is used against all batters, but has been better against righties. Part of my perception is right, and part of it was completely off; especially last season.
Wheeler is very good at facing batters who share his handiness; this perception is correct. In his career, Wheeler owns a 3.48 fielding independent pitching (FIP) against righties and a 4.78 against lefties. Expected FIP(xFIP), which is FIP with normalized home run rates, paints a similar picture: x FIP 3.57 vs. RHB and xFIP 4.80 vs LHB.
Last season, those splits were more extreme than normal. His FIP against lefties was 8.07 (xFIP 6.51) and just 3.37 against righties (xFIP 3.40). Just look at the peripherals...
In 2009, his strikeout per nine innings (K/9) against right-handers was 7.98 with a walk per nine innings (BB/9) of 0.98 against. This led to a dazzling 9.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB). Against lefties, his K/9 dropped to 3.95 while his walks rose to 3.29. All total, his K/BB against LHB was a putrid 1.20.
Wheeler is prone to giving up the long ball with 11 total last season. He surrendered six against righties and five against lefties. The good news is it could have been a lot worse.
Wheeler allowed those five home runs to lefties while facing them just 29% of the time; my perception of him facing both types of batters is wrong. In fact, Wheeler's percentage of facing the opposite hand was the lowest for any American League pitcher with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Conventional wisdom says that over a larger sample size things would've leveled off toward career numbers, but be glad Joe Maddon didn't try to prove that theory
Looking at the landscape of the AL East, Wheeler's ability to get right-handed hitters out may prove to be a big part of the Rays success. The two most famous Yankees are right-handed; Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. In Boston, the Red Sox added Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, in addition to already having Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. The Toronto Blue Jays have Vernon Wells and Aaron Hill, while the Orioles have Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold.
Luckily, the Rays have enough talent in the bullpen to use their relievers' strengths in match-ups. Lefty-specialist Randy Choate, and Lance Cormier, are able to handle left-handed batters. Meanwhile, Wheeler and Grant Balfour can handle the tough righties. J.P. Howell, Rafael Soriano, and possibly Joaquin Benoit are effective across the board.
Wheeler may never live up to his worth in WAR, but he may prove his true value in the battle against right-handed batters.