Tim Wheeler — Rockies’ Prospect Spotlight

By Editorial Staff

In the dog-eat-dog world of professional baseball, lefties are wearing the Milkbone underwear. Franchises will do just about anything to get their hands on a quality southpaw hitter or pitcher. Left-handed people make up roughly 10% of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of professional baseball players. Almost half of the position players in the Hall of Fame are left-handed. Iconic players Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Ty Cobb, and Stan Musial were all southpaws. There is a reason why fathers get excited when they see their toddler pick up a ball and heave it left-handed.

As a general rule, right-handed batters have an easier time facing left-handed pitchers and lefty batters are better against righties. Since the vast majority of pitchers are right-handed, lefties have a built in advantage. When a right-handed pitcher throws to a right-handed batter, the ball is often released behind the batter’s head and breaks across his body towards the plate. This creates an indirect line of sight, making it difficult to recognize the pitch. However, when right-handed pitchers face lefties, they lose the element of deception. The same holds true for lefty on lefty matchups, only the pitcher’s advantage is exaggerated because of unfamiliarity. Some left-handed batters never get used to the effect and find themselves on the bench every time there is a southpaw on the mound.

Tim Wheeler, a Rockies 2009 first-round draft pick, serves as an example of a left-handed player that is having trouble adjusting to good left-handed pitching. In two minor league seasons with Colorado, Wheeler has hit under .200 against lefties. Tim is a highly touted prospect — many consider him one of the Rockies’ ten best — but his inability to produce against minor league southpaws is disconcerting. Fortunately, the Rockies are stacked with outfielders, allowing the luxury of patience with Wheeler as he works to improve.

In the history of Cal State Sacramento baseball, no player has been drafted higher than Wheeler. As a junior and one of the top players in the country, he was named to numerous All-American teams and became the first player in school history to garner All-WAC honors in consecutive seasons. In three seasons with Sacramento State, Wheeler was a .341 career hitter. He caught the Rockies’ attention during his junior year, when he put together a phenomenal slash-line of .385/.500/.765.

Prior to attending Sacramento State, Tim played for El Camino High School in Sacramento. He hit over .500 his senior year and led his league in almost every offensive category. Wheeler also played football at El Camino. He started at quarterback and defensive back, winning league MVP his senior year.

After the Rockies drafted Wheeler, they sent him to Tri-City. Like many players in their first minor league season, Tim struggled at the plate. He only hit .180 against lefties and his slugging percentage was a slender .381. However, Tim excelled in the field. As the Dust-Devils’ starting center-fielder, he scored a 17 in total zone fielding. He displayed above average range and a very good arm.

In 2010, the Rockies sent Wheeler to Modesto, skipping Asheville all together. Wheeler grew up in nearby Sacramento so playing for Modesto was a homecoming for him. Tim’s 2010 season was very similar to his 2009 season. He played excellent defense, but failed to make significant improvement at the plate. He once again struggled against lefties and was unable to generate much power. His slugging and OPS were virtually the same in 2009 and 2010.

Despite his problems at the plate, Wheeler is a top prospect because of his athleticism. Many scouts think he will develop into a five tool player. He is an excellent outfielder that can throw and run well, but has yet to hit for average or power. Tim is a big guy, standing at 6’4″, and like many lefties, he has a smooth and effortless swing. If Wheeler can fix his problem with lefty pitchers and improve his power numbers, he has a chance to be something special.

Tim is hardly the first lefty to struggle against southpaws. The great Ted Williams hit a very mortal .298 off lefties and still managed to piece together a pretty solid career. Like with most things, Wheeler’s success against lefties will improve with repetition. As he continues to get at-bats against left-handers, he should get more comfortable and gain confidence. However, if Tim doesn’t progress in this area, it will be very tough for him to become a regular player on the major league level.

Next year, Wheeler will leave the familiar surroundings of Modesto and start the season in Tulsa. Colorado is looking for steady progress from Tim. The quality of the left-handed pitching increases with each level of the minors and Double A will be a great test for him.

Right now, Tim is the Rockies’ third best minor league center-fielder. Charlie Blackmon has a very similar skill set to Wheeler. Both players are tall outfielders with good speed and very solid arms, but Charlie is much further along as a hitter. The Rox also have Cole Garner. He had an excellent season last year in Colorado Springs, earning him a place on the 40-Man roster.

Under the best of circumstances, Wheeler will have to spend another two seasons in the minors. He must have success against lefties in both AA and AAA before the Rockies will consider him an option for the majors. Still, Tim is a very exciting prospect. Due to his rare combination of skills, his potential is boundless.

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