There was a time when the New York Mets’ young starting rotation was the envy of all of Major League Baseball. Matt Harvey was known to Mets fans as “The Dark Knight,” Jacob deGrom was a budding star, and a couple of guys named Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz were quickly coming up the pipeline. But it was Zack Wheeler, a sixth overall draft pick by the San Francisco Giants, who may have had the highest expectations. Wheeler was acquired by the Mets in a 2011 trade that sent center fielder Carlos Beltran to the West Coast, and going into the 2012 season, Wheeler was the team’s No. 1 prospect according to FanGraphs, ahead of both Harvey and deGrom.
The dream rotation never quite materialized for the Mets, and it was not until 2018 that those five pitchers finally did a full turn. By that time, Wheeler had missed the entirety of the 2015 and 2016 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his first bit of action back on a big league mound in 2017 wasn’t great. That year, before he was shut down with a stress reaction in August, he pitched to a 5.21 earned run average and 5.03 fielding-independent pitching mark, which was good for just 0.2 FanGraphs wins above replacement.
But since the start of the 2018 season, Wheeler has quietly been not only one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, but also one of the most durable and reliable. While he doesn’t have the flashy underlying metrics that are often associated with baseball’s elite pitchers, Wheeler has still been every bit as great at preventing runs and eating innings.
Clearly, that is some elite company. Despite Wheeler being a model of consistency over the past few seasons, he never quite became the household name that his performance warrants. Part of it could be the unimpressive strikeout totals. Part of it could also be that, while Wheeler finally broke out in 2018 and 2019, it was largely in the shadow of his teammate deGrom, who won two consecutive Cy Young Awards in those seasons.
Once Wheeler became a free agent after the 2019 season, he was the most-sought-after pitcher not named Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, receiving a handsome contract from the Philadelphia Phillies to the tune of five years and $118 million. Now in the second year of the deal, it appears that the investment has paid off, as Wheeler is on pace for the best season of his career to date.
To start 2021, Wheeler has been the third-best pitcher in the National League by FanGraphs WAR, injecting himself into the early Cy Young Award conversation. Wheeler being one of the better pitchers in the league isn’t new, but just how he is getting his results has changed, which may explain the jump to the top of the leaderboard.
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As of now, Wheeler is on pace for his best marks in strikeout percentage and whiff percentage, as well as called strikes plus whiffs, since at least 2017. Wheeler has always had the repertoire to get swings and misses, but to this point, he was never able to get them at a consistently high clip. Instead, he chose a more contact-oriented approach. But a slight change in his pitch mix has catapulted Wheeler’s strikeout percentage from the seventh-lowest among qualified pitchers in 2020 to 11th-best in 2021.
During the 2020 season, the sinker was Wheeler’s second-most-thrown pitch, as he relied on it 23.7 percent of the time. This year, he has traded it for the slider, throwing it 25.2 percent of the time and opting for the sinker just 17 percent of the time. The story is similar when Wheeler gets two strikes on a batter; he has swapped his sinker for his slider to put hitters away, while throwing the four-seam fastball at an increased rate as well.
This is important for Wheeler’s ability to miss bats, since hitters have whiffed at his slider on over 30 percent of total swings since the start of the 2020 season, while whiffing at his sinker on under 20 percent of total swings. To be fair, swings and misses alone do not make one particular pitcher better than another (Baseball Savant actually rates Wheeler’s sinker as a better pitch by run value per 100 pitches), but as far as intent goes, it appears that Wheeler is getting the result that he wants.
For the Phillies, who signed Wheeler despite his injury history and a relatively worse track record at the time, the deal has been a boon. Thanks to Wheeler and teammates Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin, both of whom are having stellar seasons so far in their own right, the Phillies have the eighth-most-valuable starting rotation in baseball by FanGraphs WAR with 5.5. If Wheeler can continue to roll and stay in the Cy Young conversation, perhaps he can become the household name he deserves to be.
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