Jason Wheeler has been a successful starting pitcher ever since he signed with the Twins. In two seasons Ė and a month Ė he has compiled a 25-12 record with an ERA of 3.49 over 335.2 innings. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to chat with the talented left-hander. Wheeler is a very bright young man with a great perspective on pitching and several other things.
Wheeler is a Southern California kid. He lived in a suburb of Los Angeles and grew up as a fan of the Angels, probably both the Anaheim Angels and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In his formative years, he was able to witness some really good baseball. The Angels went to the playoff six times in eight years and won the 2002 World Series.
ďI was a big Angels fan. Favorite player? Itís hard to pick one. Iím a big Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad fan. Vlad Guerrero was a little after them, toward the end of their run. Troy Percival, Scot Shields.Ē
Those Angels teams were not just strong offensively, but always had solid starting pitching, and dominant back ends of the bullpen. However, there isnít a player that he emulates, or models his game after.
ďI love watching big league pitchers, watching them pitch. Thereís not one guy that sticks out that I want to be like him. Everyone likes to throw out CC Sabathia because Iím big and left-handed. CC Sabathia circa 2009, when he was throwing a complete game every other game. Thereís not one person that I really want to be like.Ē
Wheeler took his talents to Loyola Marymount where he pitched for three years before the Twins drafted him in the 8th
round of the 2011 draft. Four rounds later, the Twins selected Wheelerís teammate, Matt Koch.
Regarding the catcher, who was invited to big league camp this year by the Twins, Wheeler said very good things. ďI love working with Matt. The last five years, we have worked together. Heíd been my catcher at school and in my first two years in pro ball. He obviously can hit. Thatís what got him a scholarship at LMU. Heís gotten way better defensively. I remember in college, he struggled with glove-side fastballs. That was one thing that I know he worked on a ton. Heís gotten so much better at that. I love throwing to Matt in pro ball now. Heís got a great arm behind the plate, and he and I are pretty much on the same page when weíre together calling a game. So, itís pretty good.Ē
So what makes Wheeler successful? What does he throw? Last week, he threw a complete game shutout and talked about what worked and what he tries to do on the mound.
ďI threw a ton of fastballs that game, and I was able to get to both sides of the plate. I think that thatís what drives me. If I have a good start, itís usually because of my fastball. Iím able to command it to both sides of the plate. Get in on guys. I love pitching in, lefties and righties. I think it shows. I got a lot of weak popups. Thatís what Iím trying to get to, is that mentality of really attacking with the fastballs. I threw about 80% fastball.Ē
The key to being able to throw that many fastballs is not always throwing the same fastball but also about location. ďI throw a one-seam sinker when Iím throwing in to a lefty or away from a righty. And a four-seamer when Iím throwing in. I have a cut fastball that Iíll throw in on the hands too. If I want to run it up, Iíll go 4-seamer up on the hands and the chest.Ē
He also throws a couple of secondary pitches as well to keep hitters off balance. ďJust slider and changeup. My slider and my cutter have become one pitch that Iím able to do different things with. Thatís what (Miracle Pitching Coach) Gary Lucas and I have been working on for the last couple of weeks, making that one pitch something I have some feel for. If I want to, I can make it a little bigger, have it more like a real slider, or if I want to I can tighten it up and throw it in on a right-handers hands and itís only a couple of mph off of my fastball.Ē
Wheeler has had a chance to work with a couple of very good, well-respected pitching coaches. In Beloit in 2012, he worked with Gary Lucas. Last year in Ft. Myers, he worked with Ivan Arteaga. This year, Arteaga and Lucas switched positions with Lucas moving to the Miracle and Arteaga going to Cedar Rapids. This means that Lucas and Wheeler are working together again. Both are very good, but they are very different.
ďI love working with Luke (Lucas). The big thing that I like, and very much so how I think, heís never content. Weíre not out here to be the best High-A pitcher. Somethingís wrong if Iím the best High-A pitcher for multiple years. Itís about getting to the big leagues and being the best big league pitcher that I can be. And so, weíre always working on something whether itís my breaking ball, my changeup, my arm slot. Thereís always something that we can be better at. He fuels that fire of Donít Be Content.Ē
Gary Lucas pitched eight seasons in the Major Leagues. He played for the Padres, Expos and Angels. He was a left-handed reliever who posted a 3.01 ERA. However, if you ever get the chance to talk to Lucas, you would never know that he had a major league career.
According to Wheeler, ďYou wouldnít even know it. You would think that he was the 13th
guy in the bullpen. Heís so humble. Itís awesome. Everyone knows his track record of eight years in the big leagues and a career three ERA. You wouldnít even know it talking to him. He doesnít brag or boast at all.Ē
Ivan Arteaga has a different style than Lucas, but he is also a very good teacher.
ďIvan has a little different approach than Luke. Ivan treats us more as a grown man, adult. Itís your career. Iím here to help if you want help. That (mechanics) was one thing we talked about. We looked at video and there were some hitches in my delivery. Ivan worked with me just about every day to clean it up for two months or so, and we were able to see the results at the end of the year. In my last five or six starts were pretty good, my velocity was up. That was really good to clean that up, and I kind of built on that and taken it here to this year.Ē
As I mentioned, Wheeler is a bright guy and knows himself well as a pitcher. He has a very good perspective. ďIím just trying to be as aggressive as I can be and get to the big leagues, and I think my best shot at doing that is being a guy who can throw a fastball, almost being a power pitcher in the way I think. I know that I donít run it up to 95 to 96 mph but you donít necessarily have to do that as a starter. You look at the guys who do that, and theyíre making $25 million a year, and obviously thatís awesome, but if you can be a big league starter and throwing 90-92 and get outs, you can have a pretty good career.Ē
So, letís project a couple of years out. If Jason Wheeler were to play for the Minnesota Twins, it would not be the first time he played in the state of Minnesota. Between his sophomore and junior years in college, he played for the St. Cloud River Bats. He was named the leagueís pitcher of the year after going 8-1 with a 1.35 ERA in 15 games. He also struck out 74 in 66.2 innings. However, it wasnít just the baseball game itself in the Northwoods League that he learned the most from.
ďIt was the first time that I had any experience of really being away from home and basically just playing ball every day. My first college summer ball, I played in Palm Springs, just a couple of hours away from home. I would go home whenever I could. I think that it really prepares you for minor league baseball, get on a bus for a while, youíre going to Wisconsin and wherever else, to Canada, and thereís some good competition. The next year I played in the Cape Cod, and there is better competition in the Cape Cod League, but it doesnít prepare you in terms of six-hour bus rides and other things like the Northwoods League. There are a ton of games in the Northwoods League. Itís different than any other summer league that I had experience in. I had a good time. I loved my host family while I was in St. Cloud, and it was a fun time. It was a good summerĒ
Teammates and others have told me that Jason Wheeler is incredibly smart, on the field, and also off the field. Heís got a great perspective on baseball, but heís also done the things he needs to do academically for life after baseball.
ďI got my degree in my first two off seasons. I was drafted in 2011, and I didnít play that year, so I went and took the fall semester of 2011. And then I did the fall of 2012 after I played in Beloit, and I got my degree. Iím a Business Law major with a Math minor. I took the LSAT, the Law School Admissions Test, this past offseason, and I did very well on it. So thatís good. Thatís good for five years, so if something happens with baseball, if it doesnít work out, I can go to law school. I can apply whenever I want over the next five years.Ē
Certainly not a bad fallback plan!
Learning that Wheeler is a fellow math minor makes me a big supporter. However, it is clear that his biggest support comes from his family, and in particular, his brother.
Ryan Wheeler was the Arizona Diamondbacks fifth round pick in 2009, also out of Loyola Marymount. Unlike Jason, he is a position player, and in July of 2012, he made his Major League debut with the Diamondbacks. He played in 50 games for the team. Following the season, he was traded to the Rockies for left-handed pitcher Matt Reynolds. In 2013, he played in 28 games for the Rockies. He began the 2014 season with the Rockies AAA affiliate in Colorado Springs.
Jason Wheeler and I were originally scheduled to chat on Friday afternoon, but it was pushed back one day for very good reason.
ďI was just on the phone with him for an hour. He was just called up to the Rockies. He got a hit, a hard line drive for a pinch-hit single. Right now, heís commuting from Colorado Springs, which is about an hour and a half drive to Denver because thatís where their AAA team is, and so heís called the last two days and weíve talked for an hour, hour and a half.Ē
On Saturday, he started and went 1-3 with his first home run of the season (and second of his career). So, what do the two brothers talk about during their conversations?
ďWe donít talk baseball too much, to tell you the truth. Heís a position player so we, weíll talk about his at bats, or weíll talk when I have a start. We donít talk too much about the lifestyle and baseball itself because we live it every day. But itís just good to talk to him,Ē Wheeler continued, ďBut itís not really baseball. Itís just kind of talking, hanging out, heís probably my best friend. Weíve got a small group of really good, close friends. Itís good that we are together in that circle.Ē
So what are some of Wheelerís goals for the 2014 season?
ďObviously it would be nice to be recognized as an All-Star in the High-A League if Iím here long enough. Thatís not everything. Those accolades, like I mentioned earlier, youíre not really here to be the best High-A pitcher. I want to get better. I want to move up. I want to keep going. I want to push myself through the organization and move some people out of the way that are above me and thatís only going to happen if I keep getting better.Ē
Hopefully that will mean a promotion to AA New Britain. ďThatís obviously a main goal (to get to New Britain). I just want to go out and get better. Thatís kind of the big thing.Ē
That promotion should be coming soon. One would think that Wheeler would be the next starting pitcher promoted from Ft. Myers to New Britain. Hopefully youíve enjoyed this opportunity to get to know a Twins prospect who has a chance to work his way up the system and could reach the big leagues. Feel free to comment.