Pitching prospect Zack Wheeler is living out his dream of playing baseball. Ever since he could walk, the Georgia native has loved the game and the memories it afforded him. Now he's on the cusp of creating a lasting impression.
Acquired by the New York Mets in the deal that sent outfielder Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants in July, the right-hander figures to play a key role in the team's rebuilding efforts over the coming years.
Wheeler went 9-7 with a 3.52 ERA and 129 strikeouts over 115 innings between Class A Advanced San Jose and St. Lucie last year. The 21-year-old made six starts in the Florida State League after joining the Mets, and it's likely he will move up to Double-A Binghamton in 2012.
MiLB.com talked with Wheeler about growing up in a sporting family, learning about baseball from his brothers and ironing out the creases in his mechanics.
MiLB.com: The 2011 season marked your second year as a pro. What did you take from the campaign?
Zack Wheeler: I think I developed my off-speed stuff. That came from my pitching coach at San Jose, Brian Cooper, who really just pounded the mental side of baseball into all of the pitchers there, and it showed because some of them were the best in the league.
I was thinking about it like I had never thought about it before. He helped me develop my slider and curve. Like on the curveball, just getting my fingers in front of the ball instead of on the side so it's actually a legit curveball. It helped me out tons.
MiLB.com: Considering the work you've been doing with your breaking pitches, how would you rate your slider and curve compared with your fastball?
Wheeler: I'd never been able to throw a curve ball or anything really. I threw a pretty good one in high school, scouts said, but once you get up to where I am now people will be hitting it. My fastball is my best pitch and it's up in the air after that. I throw the curve ball at certain times and I throw the slider at certain times.
They're both pretty good now. I can use my curve for strike three or I could use it to set a guy up early in the count and then come back with a harder slider or a fastball. I hope to be able to use it a bunch of different ways. That's what I'm trying to figure out right around now so that I can be prepared later on.
MiLB.com: What do you still need to do with your curve to get it ready for the season?
Wheeler: I need to work on location, that's about it. The pitch is how I want it. It doesn't have a huge loop, but it has a lot of break. It comes in on the same plane as my fastball. I just need to learn how to locate it whenever I want. It's not like I'm not throwing it for strikes, I just want to be able to locate it better.
I also want to work with my changeup a lot more to keep my walks down. For about two games before I left San Jose -- and all the time in Port St. Lucie -- I went back to my old mechanics that I was using in high school and I think it showed. My [pitches per] inning went down, but my strikeout numbers stayed the same and my strikeout-to-walk ratio was better. I think it's going to help going back to those mechanics.
MiLB.com: What's the difference between your high school mechanics and the motion you were using at the start of last year?
Wheeler: Before, the Giants had me slow down. I'm a tall lanky guy, so if I slow down, my arms start dragging. I might be out in front of myself, but my arms are dragging behind me so the ball is high or my curve is just loopy or whatever. When I went back to my old mechanics, everything just flowed a lot easier. I bring my hands up higher, I bring my knee up higher and everything flows together.
It comes out of my hand easy and it has movement. Before, I had the same velocity, but the ball was straight so people were hitting it and I couldn't figure out why. Then finally I just thought I should go back to my old stuff.
MiLB.com: When you were slowing down, did that make it harder to hit a consistent release point?
Wheeler: It made everything difficult. Whenever you slow down your mechanics, it slows your arm down. I had the same velocity, but mentally while I was doing it I was counting "one ... two ... three" all throughout my motion, and that's hard to do when you're out there trying to pitch and throw. You don't want to be thinking about your mechanics, you just want to let it come naturally.
MiLB.com: From the discussions you've had with your new coaches, do you have a sense of how the Mets would like you to progress over the coming season?
Wheeler: When I first got there, they told me to do whatever I did at the end with the Giants. They said they just wanted to sit back and watch me and learn about me. They wanted to learn what I do and what I need to work on. They're going to come back and let me know what to work on in Spring Training.
They told me to keep doing whatever I'm doing -- keep the same throwing program and the same running program -- and then we can try to learn about each other. I think it's going to be really good. We have a lot of really good pitchers and position players coming up, and I think we can help out in the next couple of years. It's something to look forward to. It makes you want to work a little harder. It should be fun.
MiLB.com: What message do you have for the Mets fans who maybe aren't too enthusiastic for the 2012 season?
Wheeler: I mean, it's baseball, stuff happens. Teams go through tough times, but fans have to hang in there and stay positive. Maybe this year the team will shock the fans and be good. You never know what's going to happen over the next few years. Just be ready.
MiLB.com: Take me back to the day you got drafted. What do you remember about that?
Wheeler: It was crazy. I remember getting ready at my house with all my friends and family, and we went to this place called Stars and Stripes, which is like a family place which has bowling and video games and stuff. We were all sitting in this room and I had my Little League baseball coaches and coaches that I had played for over the summers there and all that.
It was just a special time. It's all like a blur, but I remember stuff every day. I've been thinking about it lately, I don't know why, but I have. It was a lot of fun, and there was a little team from around this area up there having a team party and they came over even though they didn't know me. It was fun.
MiLB.com: Did you have an expectations of where you were going to be drafted?
Wheeler: We sort of had a clue that I could go anywhere from four to seven, but I knew I wasn't likely to go past the Braves because they always take the hometown kid. We sort of had a clue, but we didn't know if the Giants were going to pass on me or not, but we thought they might get me.
Having that idea in my head that I wasn't going to fall past seven was a really good feeling. Of course, like 28 of the 30 teams contacted me throughout high school, only two didn't, but I don't remember which two.
MiLB.com: How did you react when the Giants took you sixth overall?
Wheeler: It was a shock. Growing up, I never would have thought that I would be able to do that. My brother got drafted in '01 so we sort of had a clue, but back then, we were listening to the Draft over the Internet, so it was a different situation. Once he went away for a year or two and then came back and started helping me out, I felt like I was ahead of the game because he had learned from Doc Gooden and all them. I was just going into high school, so I felt like I was ahead of the game mentally.
MiLB.com: Were you ever competitive with your brothers?
Wheeler: Not really. I was always too young. I have two older brothers and I am the youngest of the three. Adam (28) is the middle brother and Jacob (30) is the oldest, and they're two years apart so they would always play around together. They would be playing basketball on the driveway and I would always want to join in, but I was too small. So they would give me a whistle and make me stand there and be the ref.
I was always just hanging out with them -- they had me dribbling a basketball, throwing baseballs and switch-hitting when I was 2. It was fun.
MiLB.com: What did you learn most about baseball from Adam?
Wheeler: It was the mental side of it, really. Just going out there and thinking that nobody can hit you. It sort of sounds cocky, but that is how you have to feel when you're out there. You have to compete and be strong. If somebody hits a home run off you, you just have to be, "Oh well it's one home run, let's go -- let's get the next guy."
That was the biggest part that I got from him in high school. Then he came back and helped me out with my mechanics, and that's where I am right now. He helped me out a lot and told me what to expect with the teams and the bus rides and things like that. I was ready for it.
MiLB.com: What early baseball memories do you have from your childhood?
Wheeler: My brothers were always there to support me, that was the main thing. We would be in the backyard before they went to their Little League games when I was like 3 years old, just this little kid. I would put on these huge shin guards that were for a grown person and a chest protector and a mask and they would just throw the ball at me because I wanted to get hit by it every day.
We always played around during the summers and just hang out at the house playing sports all day. They always played high school ball, so I'd go to those games, and then Adam got drafted and I'd go visit him and watch his games. I always just loved my family and looked up to them.
MiLB.com: And you're also a college football fan. How much of that was because of your brother?
Wheeler: The University of Michigan, yeah, I love them. My brother grew up liking them, I think, because of their colors. We had no ties to the North or anything. Like I said, I have always looked up to my brothers and I just followed them and started liking them. Next offseason, I want to go to a game. I want to go to the Alabama game at Texas Stadium, the first game of next year. It should be fun.
MiLB.com: When did you know you wanted to play baseball for a living?
Wheeler: Probably when I was 13 or 14. I couldn't make a travel team to save my life. I wasn't throwing hard and I was sort of short and skinny before I hit my growth. I was probably a little below-average baseball player and nobody wanted me on their team. And then going into my 16-year-old summer, I got on with the East Cobb Astros which is like the No. 1 team in East Cobb and that's what started it all off.
Once I made that team -- it's elite in that age group and they beat 17- and 18-year-olds -- once I made that team, it boosted my confidence. Since then I took off and I realized that I could do it for a living. I was so determined about getting drafted and playing baseball for my career, I just worked hard every offseason. I would work out three times a week, putting on muscle, throwing and working hard and that paid off.
MiLB.com: You seem pretty active on Twitter. What's it like interacting with fans in this way?
Wheeler: It's always fun hearing people's thoughts and people's questions. It's not always about baseball, sometimes random questions. Coke or Pepsi? I know they want to know about me, the little stuff. I've got time on my hands, so why not answer some questions? It's fun.
MiLB.com: I heard a story that when you got traded to the Mets. Did your number of Twitter followers exploded?
Wheeler: Yeah. I went from San Jose where they have an awesome fan base and they are die-hard and they love their players. I had like 3,500 followers which is pretty good, but as soon as I got traded my phone started blowing up and I had to hurry up and turn off that email from Twitter that tells you every time you get a new follower.
It was just blowing up. I got back on two hours later, and people were asking me so many questions about the trade. I had like 7,000 followers and I was like, "Oh my gosh, I guess I am with a New York team now. Everybody loves me."