It’s hard to impact one’s WAR in just one game, but Wheeler’s stellar game both on the mound at the plate did more than just impact it.
On Tuesday night, Zack Wheeler had a game to remember, and I’m sure the Mets were thrilled to see it. He pitched seven shutout innings while striking out eleven and walking no one. On top of that, he was 2-2 at the plate with a double and a home run! That home run was not a cheapie either, as it was a slightly opposite field homer that was crushed with an exit velocity of over 100 MPH, which leads to this fun fact from Daren Willman:
Zack Wheeler is the first pitcher this season to join the 100/100 club. Throw a pitch 100 MPH+ and hit a ball 100 MPH+.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 24, 2019
Wheeler’s career seemed to be on the rocks going into last season. He had not pitched a full season since 2014 due to Tommy John surgery and complications in the recovery process. In what turned out to be one of the better stories of 2018, he turned in a 3.41 RA9 with a solid strike out rate and accumulated about 4 WAR. Furthermore, the pitcher who had struggled with his control for his entire major league career had a walk rate that was not just improved over previous seasons, but was actually better than the major league average.
Up until his latest outing, the 2019 season had not been so kind to Wheeler. He went into Tuesday night with a 6.35 RA9 over his first four starts, and it looked like his control problems had come back with a vengeance, as he had a 13.7 BB%. At the plate, he had one single over eight plate appearances, which to be fair, was probably better than most pitchers. As I am sure you can imagine, he was replacement level as both a hitter and a pitcher.
Wheeler was so dominant as both a hitter and pitcher on Tuesday night, that he was able to add a whopping 0.5 WAR to his season total! He gained three runs above replacement (RAR) as a pitcher, and two runs as a hitter. Over at FanGraphs where pitcher WAR is based on FIP, he was rated even better. Since his 4.75 FIP was much better than his actual runs allowed going into Tuesday night, he was worth 0.2 WAR at the time. Keeping in mind that FIP is based on a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed, his FIP really liked that he struck out 11 without allowing any walks or home runs, so it boosted his WAR by 0.4 as opposed to the 0.3 over at Baseball Reference, which is based on RA9. FanGraphs also rated his bat as 2 RAR, so overall he accumulated even more WAR per that model at 0.6 WAR.
It is worth mentioning that it is easier to impact fWAR in a single game than bWAR, as illustrated above. A pitcher can’t do better than a 0.00 RA9 because, obviously, he can’t allow negative runs. FIP, however, can have a negative value. Wheeler’s single game FIP on Tuesday night was -0.03.
Starting pitchers affect a game more than any other position or role, so unlike position players, they can accumulate more than a fraction of a run with a big outing. Also, of course, NL pitchers have an advantage by getting to hit two or three times per outing. Since replacement level for pitchers hitting is soooooo low, it does not take much to add WAR there. Again, Wheeler added 2 RAR in just two plate appearances!
Unfortunately, no site keeps track of how much WAR a player gains in just one game, even though that makes sense when you think about it. When your average player is worth 2 WAR over a full season, a record of WAR per game played is just going to be thousands upon thousands of records of fractions of a run gained or lost. As a result, as cool as Wheeler’s feat is, it is difficult to put it into context. I can tell you this, though don’t ask me how I remember it: in Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter in 2014, he gained 0.7 fWAR in that one game by striking out 15 and not allowing a walk. It was seriously one of the greatest pitching performances ever. Unlike Wheeler, though, he was 0-4 at the plate.
Wheeler now has a 4.85 RA9 for the season, which is actually not bad considering the defense behind him, and his strikeout rate is sitting at 26 percent, which is nine percent better than the league average (thanks to FanGraphs for the new “plus” stats!). His control still needs work, but hopefully he can keep the good times rolling.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.