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Matt Harvey and Everybody Else

Zack Wheeler [1] will be 24 years old on May 30. This is easy to forget, but we’d do well to remember it. He’s a work in progress.

Wheeler lost today [2] against the Nationals, victimized by Wilson Ramos [3], dimwitted baserunning by his teammates, Ian Desmond [4] and his own command. There’s no particular shame in falling prey to Ramos — when he sees a pitcher wearing blue and orange, Ramos is transformed from journeyman catcher to Mike Piazza [5] channeling Rico Carty [6], Freddie Freeman [7] and Greg Dobbs [8]. The misadventures of Daniel Murphy [9] and Juan Centeno [10] are obviously their own problems. And Desmond smashed a long home run off a Wheeler slider that didn’t slide, which brings up the issue of command.

Wheeler’s pitches haven’t gone where he’s wanted them to in three of his last four starts — a debacle [11] against the Rockies, a mess [12] against the Yankees and now what happened vs. the Nats. What’s wrong? To my admittedly civilian eye, it looks mechanical and not mental.

Wheeler’s not exactly electric in postgame interviews, but it’s a fannish mistake to dismiss a laid-back Southern pitcher who fails to breathe fire after a loss as missing the Will to Win. Are there Mets pitchers who have lacked that ineffable quality? Sure. Mike Pelfrey [13]‘s lack of focus and general weirdness was a huge problem for him, and Jonathon Niese’s conspicuous lack of interest in his craft drives me crazy. But I don’t see evidence of that in Wheeler. Rather, what I see is a failure to repeat his motion and stick to his release point, which leads to imprecise location, which leads to glum glances at balls heading for another ZIP code and kicking at the dirt. (Talk that Wheeler’s been tipping his pitches sounds like another manifestation of the same problem.) Nothing against Gary and Keith, but I really wanted Ron around for today’s broadcast to talk mechanics.

Wheeler has another problem that isn’t his fault: He isn’t Matt Harvey [14].

Harvey followed an intriguing half-season with a dominant sophomore campaign, and when Wheeler seemed to follow the same script (complete with a delayed debut because of service-time considerations), I think we decided his 2014 would be like Harvey’s 2013, though hopefully without Tommy John [15] surgery. But not every pitcher is Matt Harvey, sprung like some pitching Athena out of the head of Tom Seaver [16]. Most 23-year-olds still have things to learn, and there’s no shame in that.

Plus watching Wheeler get into trouble and fail to extricate himself from it, I found myself thinking how extraordinarily hard pitching is.

First you need superhuman DNA — the ability to throw a baseball at extraordinary speed, ideally with natural movement, and to command one, two or ideally three other pitches well enough to get the best hitters on the planet out consistently. There’s no question Wheeler passes this test– his arsenal is scary good.

Next you need consistent mechanics — the ability to do something physically and mentally difficult again and again and again, even if you’re exhausted and 40,000 people are screaming and a game, season or your own career might depend on how you execute. Wheeler’s still working on this, though every pitcher struggles with it at times.

Finally you need the intangible part — a good memory for batters’ tendencies and tells, the ability to adjust and improvise from inning to inning and at-bat to at-bat, and a ferocious desire to compete and win. (A good catcher helps, of course.) Does Wheeler have that? We should let him master the mechanical part before we make judgments.

Oh, and of course even if you can do all these things, pitching does awful things to your elbow and shoulder. It’s painful and profoundly unnatural — every pitcher knows his elbow is a ticking bomb, and this next pitch might leave him with a horrible feeling that something inside has tightened or popped, which at best means a year of rehab and at worst means everything you’ve worked for is gone.

Zack Wheeler’s 23 and still learning to do something incredibly hard. Rather than sigh that he isn’t Matt Harvey, let’s give him time to become Zack Wheeler.