Ryan Wheeler was promoted to the Arizona Diamondbacks from their AAA Affiliate, the Reno Aces of the Pacific Coast League. The 3rd baseman was one of the top hitters in the PCL with a 142 wRC +, 8th best (between Scott Moore and Matt McBride). However, these optimistic statistics don’t really tell the whole story. Wheeler got a big benefit from BABIP in AAA at .386 versus the league average of .323. His home park in Reno is considered an extremely hitter friendly park, even for the PCL. His team seems to get great BABIP benefits from it, as you can see these numbers from his teammates: Adam Eaton .429 BABIP, Josh Bell .394, Jacob Elmore .404. Wheeler is an under average walker, and strikes out about average. His SLG and ISO were way above league average though. This could somewhat be explained by his home park, as he had a pretty big home/road split, slugging .550 at home, and .471 on road since 2011 (but has been slightly better on the road this year). He also had a pretty appallingly high percentage of fly-balls turning into homers at 17%. League average in the PCL is around 11% and Prince Fielder’s is at 15% in the Majors this year and Justin Upton has a 13.8% in his career. Wheeler is certainly not in that class of power hitter, as Upton has 86 power (out of 1-100) according to the Baseball Cube and Wheeler is at 65. While he made more contact than the average PCL hitter, he also swung more.
I’ve seen Wheeler play in the PCL, I wanted to see how he looked in the Majors.
The first 2 MLB pitches he saw were low fastballs and fouled them back. Wheeler then fouled off a high 93 MPH fastball before taking one in the dirt. He whiffed on the first breaking ball he saw, a 83 MPH slider that bounced on the plate. The plate discipline is not good, as the numbers above showed, and his bat speed looks slow. One former scout that I talked to disagreed and thought the bat speed looked fine and he wasn’t cheating on the fastball (like I thought he was).
The second time he started off by taking a moving fastball for strike 1. Wheeler then swung at a 91 MPH moving fastball on the low outside corner for a foul the other way. He took another one that was off the plate for ball 1 and then chased a similar slider that ended the first at-bat for another strikeout.
The 3rd time actually started with a breaking pitch, a 78 MPH slider and he fouled it off. Wheeler then grounded into a fielder’s choice to the pitcher on a fastball at 89 MPH at the bottom of the zone. He was gunned down at the plate from center field later in the inning, showing below average speed.
The 4th at-bat started with a wild fastball followed by a fastball that drifted off the plate. Wheeler hit it, despite it being a ball, and it dropped in for his first career hit.
In game 2, Wheeler didn’t start, but pinch hit in the bottom of the 7th against Wilton Lopez. He took a 93 MPH fastball that looked a bit off the plate but was called strike 1. He didn’t wait on the 2nd pitch, a slider in basically the same location at 84 MPH. The lefty hitter weakly tapped it to the 1st baseman.
Wheeler’s first at-bat in game 3: A 92 MPH fastball high and on the outside corner (with a bit of tailing action) was a big whiff for Wheeler. He then took a breaking pitch down, before fouling another moving fastball on the outside corner the other way. A high curve was an easy take to make the count 2-2. A high inside fastball at 93 MPH was barely fouled by Wheeler, and went to the backstop. A slider by pitcher Jordan Lyles was hung on the inside corner but it jammed Wheeler and he hit it weakly foul in the air for an out to the 1st base side.
2nd at-bat: Wheeler took an outside moving fastball that caught the plate for strike 1. A slider just missed outside and Wheeler took that as well for ball 1, and then took a fastball in the dirt. He then got a moving fastball on the low inside part of the plate and made a nice quick swing and pulled it between the 1st and 2nd baseman. This was his most impressive at-bat, but it was just a ground-ball single.
3rd at-bat: A 91 MPH on the outside corner was swung at and fouled back for strike 1. Then Wheeler saw basically the same pitch on the outside corner and swung through it. A soft slider came in on him and he chased and fouled it off his ankle. He took an outside fastball just off the plate with 2 strikes, probably his best take of the series. A moving fastball low, probably in the strike zone was hit for a grounder to short for a fielders choice.
4th at-bat: An inside 93 MPH fastball was taken for a strike before he whiffed on a 94 MPH pitch on the lower outside corner. A similar one was a little of the plate and he laid off of it, as he did with a changeup that bounced before it made the plate. He then fouled off a 94 MPH fastball on the outside corner before he got one on the inside part of the plate and flew out medium deep to CF.
There are all kinds of questions about Ryan Wheeler defensively, as Keith Law believes that he can’t play 3rd base. Kevin Goldstein views him as a bench bat. However, the first day he was up, he started and played 3rd. In the AAA all-star game a couple weeks back (when I first thought about writing an article on Wheeler), he showed off some range to his right, diving for a ball and stopping it. However, he spiked the throw a little bit.
His first chance in the big leagues was a bunt in the 1st inning his way. It was in the air about 45 feet then fell between Wheeler and the pitcher Trevor Cahill. Wheeler got to it, probably too late to get the out anyway, and couldn’t scoop it with his glove. The Astros would bunt his way again in the first (with 2 outs), but it wasn’t anywhere near Wheeler, and Cahill was the only one that had a chance at it (he didn’t even pick up the ball cleanly). The first real play he got was a little chopper barely to his left. It was an easy play and Wheeler treated it as such. His range to his right is just poor, as a pretty hard grounder just a couple feet to his right showed, as he tried to dive for it and came up nowhere close. It was not a great exhibition of reaction skills. The next ball was hit right at him when he was in on the grass and he did a good job of checking the runner and the throw wasn’t bad. He also had a liner screamed directly at him, which he caught (he had to or it would have hit him in the face). A soft ground-ball hit right to him was booted as he tried to scoop it with his glove and it bounced out. He sort of made up for it in his next chance, as a sharply hit ball was fielded well by Wheeler and he made a nice throw.
In game 2, he had a weak grounder hit to him that he fielded cleanly and made a strong throw on to get an out. His next chance was a ground-ball his way that he had to go to his left to reach. It seemed that he needlessly dived and then, while the throw was strong, it wasn’t in time. He got another chopper that he made an easy play on with a good throw. Another soft grounder forced Wheeler to run up to the ball and he wasn’t even able to make a throw. In game 3, a soft liner was hit right at him and he made the play easily.
In the end, there is a good chance Wheeler won’t stick at 3rd base. It is certainly hard to see him being close to average there. This likely leaves him at 1st base, where it is extremely hard to see him hit enough to be worth playing every day. The patience doesn’t seem to be there and the power numbers in Reno are almost certainly fluky. The story of Ryan Wheeler as a big leaguer probably follows a similar path of Greg Dobbs, a pinch hitter with below average defense, but enough bat to keep him around in the National League.