My dad sent me a text message during the 6th inning last night that simply read “the Wheels just fell off.” He was, of course, referring to Dan Wheeler’s consecutive walks that turned a 5-4 lead into a deficit and eventual loss.
Dad, like a lot of Rays fans, finds no comfort when the skipper points in Wheeler’s direction. I have to agree. Wheeler always feels like he is teetering on the edge of disaster during his outings and is one frisbee slider or hanging splitter from oblivion. In fact, I sat down to write a post about the Rays’ desperate need to dump Wheeler, and what I believed to be a career worst season, when finally reorganizing the postseason ‘pen.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t say that Wheels is having a particularly bad or good season. He is just doing exactly what he has done throughout his career.
Over the course of his 11 Major League seasons Wheeler has a 3.85 ERA, and has averaged 2.8 walks and 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, he has a 3.46 ERA and has walked 3.0 hitters per nine while striking out 9.3. While strikeouts are important for a pitcher used in high-leverage situations, the number I generally look to when evaluating late-game relievers is left-on-base percentage. For his career, Wheeler has stranded 74.7 % of the runners he inherited, this season he has stranded 71.1%.
I think we, as Rays fans, have a perception problem when it comes to Wheeler. He returned to the franchise in late 2007 after his nearly four-year National League hiatus and promptly put together two of the best seasons of his career in 2008 and 2009 before letting his numbers creep back towards his career averages this summer. (His Win Probability Added in those seasons was 1.03 and 1.36 according to FanGraphs, his best years aside from the 1.41 WPA he put up in helping the 2005 Astros reach the Fall Classic).
In the end, Wheeler is just an average right-hander who is striking out batters more frequently than he has at any point in his career. This would be a bigger problem had the firm of Benoit and Soriano not emerged as late game specialists.