By Tommy Rancel //
Drafted by the original Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1996, Dan Wheeler has spent part of seven of his eleven major league seasons in Tampa Bay. He made his D-Rays debut in 1999 as a starting pitcher before returning in 2007 as a relief pitcher. Over the course of his two stints, he has made a combined 239 appearances for the Rays. He has saved 18 games for the franchise, but at one time held the organization’s single-game strikeout record as a starter.
Since his return in 2007, Wheeler has been a roving reliever for Joe Maddon. In his 209 appearances under Maddon, he has served as a set-up man, defacto closer, and more recently a right-handed specialist. Although his previous ERAs (3.12 in 2008 and 3.28 in 2009) suggest he was an above-average fireman, Wheeler has been largely average according to defensive independent metrics. In fact, his 4.49 FIP (fielding independent pitching) in 2008 and 4.48 in 2009 were actual below-average compared to the league (4.32).
In recent seasons, Wheeler has taken his fair share of criticisms; mostly because he has given up a decent amount of home runs in a short amount of time. Despite pitching less than 140 innings in 2008 and 2009, Wheeler surrendered 21 home runs. Part of Wheeler’s problem has been usage. For his career, he owns a 4.84 FIP against left-handed batters and a 3.40 vs right-handed batters. Eight of the 21 home runs allowed in the previous two seasons were hit by lefties.
In 2010, Maddon has used Wheeler similar to the way a manager would use a lefty specialst. Of the 146 batters he has faced this season, 80% of them have been right-handed. The correct usage has improved Wheeler’s numbers across the board. After consistently posting FIP numbers well above his ERA, Wheeler’s 2010 FIP of 3.32 is within a run of his ERA (2.70). In fact, Wheeler’s current xFIP of 3.54 is a career-best.
The biggest improvement for the 32 year-old has been strikeouts. After posting K/9′s of around 7.0 the past few seasons, Wheeler is striking out better than a batter per inning with a K/9 of 9.82. He has also cut his home runs considerably – allowing four home runs in 36.2 innings.
According to fangraphs, Wheeler is now throwing a cutter. On the other hand, due to classificiation issues, it is likely the same slider we’ve seen from him in the past. The pitch f/x database at texasleaguers.com says he’s getting a whiff nearly 13% on the pitch. In conjunction with the hard(er) breaking ball, Wheeler’s softer option – the curveball – is getting a swing and miss nearly 30%(!!!) of the time.
Whether its the platoon usage, the effective breaking stuff, or all of the above, Wheeler is turning in his best work as a member of the Tampa Bay organization. Unfortunately, he may only have a few months left with the team. The club holds a $4 million option on him for 2011 with a $1 million buyout.
For a team always took for value, paying $4 million for a middle reliever with a large platoon split may not be the best allocation of resources. Then again, it depends on the market for relievers and where the Rays decide to spend their available funds.
For now, just add Dan Wheeler’s future to the laundry list of decisions to be made by Andrew Friedman once the 2010 seasons end.