Zack Wheeler: Comeback Kid

The Mets were blessed with an exceptional season from a young pitcher this year, one that could garner him an impressive award pickup when all is said and done.

That’s right, Zack Wheeler is a top candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. Who did you think I meant?

To say Wheeler’s breakout in 2018 was unexpected would be an understatement. After missing two full years due to a long Tommy John recovery, he struggled significantly in 2017, putting up an ERA over 5 before being shut down in July with a stress fracture.

Wheeler’s performance was so concerning to the Mets that he didn’t even earn a spot on the big league roster out of spring training; only a lingering injury to Jason Vargas opened a spot for him, but once it did, Wheeler was determined to make it stick. Early struggles raised eyebrows, but on the back of improved velocity and a brand new splitter, he busted out in June and hasn’t looked back.

Wheeler finished his season, a little early due to innings restrictions, with a 3.31 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, and 4.7 WARP, all career-bests. Not only did he return from a series of arm injuries that could have easily ended his career, he’s done it while launching himself into an elite tier of starting pitchers. He has the second lowest ERA of any pitcher in the second half, lower even than Cy Young favorite Jacob deGrom.

If there’s anything the Comeback Player of the Year voters love, it’s triumphant Tommy John returns. Former Met Matt Harvey picked it up back in 2015 with an ace-level season after his own UCL replacement and Greg Holland got the nod in 2017 with the league lead in saves.

Competition for Wheeler on the pitching side of this award (one award is given per league, with pitchers accounting for 64% of National League recipients) is thin this year, as Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin have emerged as the most prominent names taking big steps forward in performance between 2017 and 2018.

Notably, both of these pitchers have been fairly healthy in recent years, not missing the kind of time that tends to garner attention. If the voters want to really lean into that, Johnny Venters would be quite a pick, putting up a 3.06 ERA this year after having not thrown a major league pitch since 2012 and undergoing his second and third career Tommy John surgeries in the interim. His limited time on the mound is probably the biggest knock against him, but it would be hard to argue against recognition of his truly unique achievement in coming back at all.

On the hitting side, there aren’t any standout competitors. The Matt Kemp rejuvenation narrative is somewhat undermined by statistical similarities between his two seasons and breakout years from Christian Yelich and Javier Baez are more about young players coming into their own than a return from injury or underperformance.

Regardless of whether Wheeler walks away with the Comeback Player of the Year trophy, his achievements this season should not be overlooked. He went from an injury-ridden former top prospect riding a bus through the Pacific Coast League to a dominant five-pitch starter who has never looked better. It’s a good time to be Zack Wheeler.

Photo credit: Brett Davis – USA TODAY Sports

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