Editor's note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will be profiling Dan Wheeler each day this week. On Monday, Wheeler's rise from Rhode Island to the MLB draft was covered.
A good number of minor league pitchers have stat lines that include inflated walk and strikeout totals. Many of them have good stuff but struggle to harness it. Pitching to contact is not always a common conception.
There are exceptions, of course. Plenty of them. Dan Wheeler, who is prepared to showcase his strike-throwing ability for the Red Sox this season, was one. He never had such issues, peppering the strike zone from the start and making it difficult for the fledgling Tampa Bay Devil Rays to keep him down too long.
In his first taste of professional baseball, playing for Hudson Valley of the short-season New York-Penn League in 1997, Wheeler struck out 81 hitters in 84 innings while walking just 17. Such a ratio will catch the eye of the organization; the fact that Wheeler was able to do it with a pretty varied arsenal only added to his potential.
Wheeler was doing his work then as a starter. He would not transition into a full-time reliever for a handful of years, but the maturity he showed early on made such a transition that much easier. It also helped when he got the call to The Show a bit earlier than he might’ve thought.
Playing in a system with a parent club that wouldn’t even begin play until 1998 and which would finish with a sub-.500 record every year until 2008, Wheeler was never far from being considered someone who could help out. In just his third season as a pro, barely old enough to drink a beer, he was rushed from Single-A to the majors, making his debut for the Devil Rays at Camden Yards on Sept. 1, 1999.
Here was a guy who didn’t even make high school's All-State first-team in Rhode Island just four years earlier, going five strong innings on the bump at one of baseball’s best parks. Some of that had to do with Tampa Bay’s relative dearth of pitching. Much more had to do with that aforementioned maturity.
Wheeler has always known how to pitch.
Still, one couldn’t fault the mature 21-year-old with taking some time to soak it all in.
"I couldn’t believe it," Wheeler once said of his debut, which saw him allow two runs on an Albert Belle blast and nothing else. "I couldn’t stop shaking. It meant the world to me."
Two starts later, Wheeler struck out what still stands as a career-high 12 men in six innings during a loss to Oakland. That would stand as a franchise record for eight seasons before Scott Kazmir eclipsed it, interestingly enough, also against the Athletics.
Although his first foray into the major leagues that year resulted in an 0-4 record and an ERA of 5.87, it was evident that Wheeler had enough to make it. He threw four pitches, one of which, a changeup, would become his calling card, and a major league fastball that could be classified as "sneaky."
It was sneaky because Wheeler, even at that young age, knew where to put it. He may not have been the best pitching prospect in the minors at the time, but more so than most, he knew how to throw strikes.
Check back Wednesday for more on Wheeler’s march to the majors, which included some ups and downs before he found a temporary home in New York.