NEW YORK -- It was the bottom of the fourth inning at Marlins Park, and Zack Wheeler was in complete control. The Mets afforded him only a slim lead, though, so with Giancarlo Stanton at the plate, Wheeler was careful with the Miami slugger, showing him almost his entire arsenal away, away, away, until the count was full and catcher Taylor Teagarden signaled his suggestion for the sixth pitch. Wheeler, who in effect calls his own games, agreed with Teagarden on this occasion: changeup.
Wheeler unleashed the 89-mph offering that tumbled down and in. It not only missed Stanton's bat, but it did so by several inches. Inning over.
"I don't think I've shown it to Stanton before, and I finally threw one to him. It was a good pitch," Wheeler said that night, June 19, the first shutout of his Major League career. "The changeup was a big part of today."
The same could be said of Wheeler's season. A year after Wheeler leaned heavily on his fastball during an impressive rookie campaign, the right-hander has earned regular praise during an inconsistent-turned-breakout 2014. The development of his changeup, an option he first toyed with during his Giants days but hardly used in 2013, has helped Wheeler take steps forward in producing consistently at the Major League level, and it underscores his growth as a pitcher overall.
That Wheeler has made progress over last season is clear. He is striking out more batters and walking fewer, and while his 3.48 ERA is a tick above his 2013 mark, his FIP -- "Fielding Independent Pitching," a statistic considered to be better than ERA at measuring a pitcher's effectiveness -- has dropped to 3.54 from 4.17.
A deeper look at Wheeler's repertoire reveals modifications in his pitch usage, specifically a tendency to rely less on his four-seam fastball and more on his secondary offerings.
And it wasn't an accident.
Pitching coach Dan Warthen sat his hurlers down at the beginning of the season and asked each one to set goals for himself. Wheeler's was to have a Major League-average changeup by season's end -- nothing fancy, just another weapon to supplement his four-seamer and secondary offerings, including a curveball and a slider. A changeup was a good addition because it looks like a fastball -- until it doesn't, until a batter, expecting a 97-mph heater, starts swinging too early for the slower-arriving change.
That early-season meeting with Warthen began a concerted effort on Wheeler's part to turn it into a reliable go-to pitch, which he has done by putting it up against big leaguers more regularly.
Last season, when only 3 percent of his pitches were changeups, Wheeler would occasionally overthrow it, according to catcher Travis d'Arnaud. Wheeler said that might have been a product of his holding it too tightly (back on his palm) or too loosely (more up on his fingers) on a given night.
"Sometimes he'd just try to make it do too much, and it actually hurts it. It makes the pitch flatter," d'Arnaud said. "Your body flies open, and the pitch gets flatter, and you lose command of it."
This year, that isn't so much an issue -- if Wheeler doesn't have a good feel for his changeup one night, the battery will stay away from it. On the season, though, Wheeler was throwing it 7 percent of the time entering his Wednesday outing against the A's, more than twice as often as he did in 2013. Most of them come against lefties -- it tails away from them and is harder to hit -- but righties are actually hitless against 29 changeups this year.
Wheeler said he has reached the point where he is comfortable throwing it in just about any situation -- like a full count with two outs, for example. The changeup has become reliable enough that he trusts it, so even though a ball means a walk, it remains an option.
Such was the case when Wheeler got Stanton swinging during his shutout.
With a greater frequency of changeups came results.
Opposing batters are hitting .255 against Wheeler in at-bats ending with changeups, a considerable drop from the .333 mark they posted in 2013, according to brooksbaseball.net, a website that tabulates such data.
While opponents' batting average isn't the greatest measure -- there is a great deal of luck involved when it comes to whether a batted ball drops in or not -- the peripheral numbers also indicate progress. Wheeler's changeup induces one-quarter fewer line drives this year compared to last, and twice as many ground balls. Nearly half of all balls in play on Wheeler's changeups are hit on the ground.
That's what Wheeler wants -- weak contact.
Take one at-bat in his June 3 gem against the Cubs -- 6 2/3 shutout innings -- as an example. Wheeler fed Chris Coghlan fastballs away in the second inning, but he found himself behind 2-1. He slowed it down with a changeup that dashed down and away from the left-handed-hitting Coghlan, who popped it up to third.
"You could tell he's developed more as a pitcher, from a guy that threw 95-97 [mph]. I don't think he relies on his fastball as much as he used to," Coghlan said over the weekend. "Any pitcher that's on and throwing four pitches for strikes, it doesn't matter who you are, it's going to be a tough night. ... As a hitter and as a lineup, if you can start to eliminate pitches [that aren't working for a pitcher], it just gives you a better opportunity to hunt."
The opposite is also true. That Wheeler has turned his changeup into a solid fourth pitch gives opposing hitters something else to think about.
"It gives me another tool to throw at them," Wheeler said.
Domonic Brown, for one, might not have expected it in an Aug. 10 at-bat against Wheeler. Brown was in a 1-1 count when, on back-to-back pitches, Wheeler first threw a 90-mph changeup on the outer half of the plate to set up a 97-mph fastball in on Brown's hands. The left-handed batter swung and missed at both.
"This guy is throwing 97 mph, you better speed your bat up to get to it," manager Terry Collins said. "And so if he's willing to use his changeup, you're going to get swings and misses or you're going to get little ground balls. It's a good pitch for him. It's getting better for him because he's throwing it more."
Any one of Wheeler's pitches plays off the others. His changeup might not be as useful if his fastball didn't reach the high 90s, and the fastball might not be as potent if he couldn't keep hitters off-balance with a curve.
But as Wheeler continues taking these steps forward, both with his changeup and as a pitcher generally, the foundation he's laid in recent months will only benefit him, through the end of this season and into future ones.
"Basically he's found a solid delivery and repeatable delivery, and that way he can get his arm into the same place on each and every pitch, and so he can throw any pitch he wants in any count," Warthen said. "Very seldom does a four-pitch pitcher have all four pitches working on a particular day. On those days, you're supposed to throw a shutout.
"The sky is the limit for Zack. An explosive fastball -- all four of his pitches are well above Major League average. If he gets them close to the plate, then he becomes a dominant pitcher."