Once upon a time, the New York Mets were down in the dumps. The team was a disaster. They lived in the cellar, and put a lock on the door. It was damp and musty and smelled of boiled hot dogs, but the Mets called it home.
So they traded a popular centerfielder, a former All-Star past his prime, and in the return package received a hot pitching prospect. This guy was a first-rounder, 9th overall, and the dream was that he’d become a building block for the future.
Was he perfect? Oh, no, he was not. The fastball had life, he had good secondary pitches, and he was a competitor. But he walked too many guys. Or as folks are so fond of saying nowadays, he lacked command.
At age 21, his BB/9 ratio was 5.6. He walked 95 batters in 152 innings.
Was he ready for the big leagues? Not quite.
The next season, at age 22, he walked 102 batters in 159 innings in AAA. So the Mets, in their infinite wisdom, brought him up for a cup of coffee. In five late-season starts, he walked 17 in 35 innings. He had not, alas, magically metamorphosized like a character from Ovid.
He wasn’t ready, he needed refinement.
So, of course, dazzled by his promise and potential, the Mets organization installed this exciting prospect into the everyday rotation. That first season, he walked 104 in 205 innings. An awful 4.6 ratio, ranking him #3 in the NL in free passes.
But here’s the thing: He had talent seeping out of his pores. You could see it. This pitcher had a presence, he had toughness, and he had a knack for winning games. That first year, despite the flaws and imperfections, he cobbled together an ERA of 3.81 and a 12-9 record. He helped the team.
Most importantly, however, this pitcher was a living, breathing person — not a stat sheet, not a row of numbers. Because of his exceptional ability, he did not fit into the standard, idealized formula for success.
Would it have been nice, dear friends and neighbors, if this pitcher had flawless control? Yes, that would have been swell.
So now we come to his age 24 season, and the kid leads all of the national league in walks! He’s infuriating to watch sometimes. He’s constantly battling, behind in the count, throwing too many pitches, handing out free passes, digging holes for himself. The list goes on and on about all the things this young pitcher is not. You could write long essays about all the things he doesn’t do well enough. He walks 114 guys — but, lo, the ratio is a touch better at 4.1. He’s showing progress.
And just look at the ERA, 2.90. Gaze upon the W-L record, 16-6.
He was not perfect, and would never be, but the prospect was learning on the job and helping the team win ballgames in the process. Because that’s how all jobs work. At a certain point, you have to do it, and do it before you are “ready.” So you go out and try that first case, make that first sale, write that first article, build your first house, operate on your first patient.
I’m talking about Ron Darling, of course; the headline gave that away. The pictures were clues, too.
Darling’s control got better over time, and at age 27 it made a significant leap in the right direction. But it was never great, never perfect, and his career never quite reached the heights fans might have once dreamed he’d achieve.
If only, if only. Such is life.
But one thing I never think is: if only he spent more time in Tidewater.
Obviously, I tell this story to make a point. We hear a lot about Zach Wheeler needing “more time” to refine his command down in AAA. And I don’t believe a word of it. He’s 23 years old, a #6 overall draft pick, bursting with talent.
If this is about money, and service time, okay, fine, I surrender. I think it’s misguided, I don’t agree, but there’s a logic to that argument I can grudgingly accept. We’re afraid of paying the guy. Maybe he’ll be better if he throws more in Nevada as opposed to throwing them in New York, though I can’t figure out why in the world that might be true. In fact, the opposite may well be true, that too much time at AAA will hold him back.
Jeremy Hefner starts in our rotation, followed by Aaron Laffey, and I can’t think that many folks are pushing through the gates to see these kids on the hill. I doubt we’ll ever see them on the cover of the official score book. And because those eager fans aren’t in the park, they aren’t spending the extra $70 on food and t-shirts and everything else that adds up to lost revenue.
Not many pitchers are ever going to be “ready” in the sense of arriving as a finished product. In fact, the idea is preposterous. The critical questions are about whether he’s mature enough to be with the big club, if he can win, if he can handle losing, and if he’s better than your options.
I see the major leagues as the next challenge in Zack Wheeler’s development. He needs to graduate from the minor leagues, where he no longer belongs. He needs to learn on the job with the New York Mets.
Okay, I’ll have to wait three more months. I get it. No one will die, it’s not the end of the world.
Just don’t tell me that it’s because he’s not ready.
Because if that’s what we’re waiting for, he’s readiness, then you are also telling me that maybe the Mets should not bring him up at all in 2013.
He might still lack command, you know? And heaven forfend a guy fitting that description ever makes it to Flushing.