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The instant impact of Zack Wheeler

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The Phillies struck a five-year deal with a former division rival, and arguably the best available pitcher not named Cole or Strasburg

Los Angeles Dodgers v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Did you find yourself thinking early in November, “boy, would I like the Phillies to sign a starting pitcher this winter?” Well, good news, like-minded friend! The Phillies and free agent righty Zack Wheeler — you may remember him from his time with the Metsagreed to a five-year deal worth $118 million Wednesday.

Wheeler, 29, was the third-best starting pitching option available after mega-arms Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and receives what will likely end up being the third-largest pitching contract given out this offseason. He’ll turn 30 next May.

Wheeler’s Major League career has been a play in three acts: The first, a solid emergence with a 3.50 ERA (100 ERA+) in his first two seasons; the second, two consecutive years forfeit to injury and a partial 2017 season spent trying to reacquaint himself with top-level hitting; the third, a 60-start wave of improvement in 2018-19 that landed him the third-largest free agent contract the Phillies have ever handed out.

The Phillies had the money for this — and still have more! — and now their rotation has gotten better. Boy, we got what we wanted after all!

But, well, hang on. What exactly did the Phillies just get? What do we know about Zack Wheeler? What might we expect from him? And does the success of this signing really all hinge on unlocking some sort of hidden upside? Let’s work through it.

The Stuff

A big part of Zack Wheeler’s appeal is, undoubtedly, Raw Stuff. Think about what drew the Astros to trade for Gerrit Cole two years ago, in spite of modest career numbers to that point: In an oversimplification, a hard fastball and a plus secondary pitch came pre-loaded, and with the right adjustments, Houston was able to unlock something special.

Now, the Phillies turning Wheeler into the next Cole based on stuff alone is a stretch, and hardly likely, but there’s buzz around Wheeler that his best may be yet to come. Maybe the Phillies, with a new-but-seasoned pitching coach in the fold in Bryan Price, can find enough for Wheeler to take the next step.

For now, here’s what Wheeler brings to the Phillies in his arsenal, and a look at how he’s tended to deploy that stuff in his more successful recent seasons.

For starters (get it?), Wheeler throws hard. Like, harder than basically everyone else on the Phils’ staff not named Seranthony.

In an era where high velocity is more prevalent than ever, Phillies starting pitchers have lagged. Now, in Wheeler, they have a legitimate fireballer. Better yet, Wheeler has been getting stronger, elevating his FB average from 94.8 MPH in 2017 to 95.8 MPH in ‘18 to 96.8 in ‘19, which put him in the 94th percentile of pitchers in the league. He’s also gone from 5.1 IP per start in 2017 to 6.3 in both 2018 and ‘19, while his pitches per start (from 92 to 99 to 102) have also risen alongside; so, not only is he throwing harder, he’s able to sustain it deeper into games.

But no pitcher survives on fastball alone anymore, and Wheeler brings three reliable secondary pitches to the table in a slider, changeup, and curveball.

The slider is hard, averaging 91.2 MPH. and is a favored weapon against right-handed batters. Last year, righties posted just a .273 wOBA against Wheeler’s slider, with a 26.6 percent whiff rate (57 misses in 214 swings).

The changeup, a newly-utilized weapon for Wheeler in 2019, was most often used against lefties but occasionally flashed to righties, too. It doesn’t break as much — its 24.1 inches of vertical drop and 12.4 inches of horizontal wiggle are both 12 to 13 percent less movement than league average, per Statcast — but its late break, when tunneled right, leaves hitters starting their swing before they realize the bottom is about to drop out.

In 2018, this pitch was frequently classified as a splitter (and you can kind of see why in the example above), but that and the changeup are essentially the same offering...with one particular difference. As Wheeler told The Athletic’s Tim Britton in September 2018:

“I’ve become better at looking at swings when I pitch, and so you can sort of tell, ‘I need to throw a changeup a little slower based off his swing’ ... Maybe he’s a little more out in front, so I want to throw a changeup instead of a split for the velo difference.
“Sometimes when a guy is right on my fastball, I’m going to throw him a split because it’s going to be a little bit firmer but then drop out. You’ve got to sit up there and read it and think a lot more.”

So, they’re very similar pitches. We’ll refer to both when we talk about his “changeup,” and understand that two slightly different versions of the pitch may emerge again in 2020.

The curve might be his best pitch. He’ll throw it to both lefties and righties without much bias, and though he only threw it 315 times in 2019, he generated a big 28.1 percent whiff rate with a 37 percent K rate. His 81.7 average EV allowed when it was put in play was tied for the 6th-lowest in MLB last season; lower than Charlie Morton, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, and (obviously) many more.

The Performance

Where the room often divides is the level of confidence in Wheeler’s ability to consistently channel his stuff into upper echelon results. The raw flashes above exemplify some of his stuff at its best, but how often is he at his best?

You read some of the numbers above and think, “that should be good for a consistently low ERA and healthy peripherals!” And...you’d be kind of right! Thanks in part to that sputtering half-season in 2017, Wheeler’s career ERA+ is exactly 100. Last year, it was 102 (one point better than the Phils’ version of Drew Smyly) and in 2018 it was 112 (three points ahead of Tommy Hunter, remember him?), and while you always want above-average, those aren’t typically the levels you’d ascribe the “$23 million pitcher” label to.

But ERA and, to a point, ERA+, like any other single statistic in baseball, don’t tell the whole story on their own. Wheeler’s other peripherals, in many cases, point to a pitcher whose ERAs betray him and belie his true talent. A sample from 2018-19:

  • 3.37 FIP: 12th-best in MLB among pitchers with 300+ IP; Stephen Strasburg’s is 3.39
  • 3.56 K/BB: 25th-best in MLB in that same group; Aaron Nola’s is 3.28
  • 17.1 K%-BB%: 24th-best in MLB; Madison Bumgarner’s is 16.2
  • 0.86 HR/9: t-5th-best; only Jacob deGrom, Brad Keller, Charlie Morton, and Noah Syndergaard were lower
  • 78 DRA-: t-26th-best with Marcus Stroman among pitchers with 150+ IP

The peripherals go through a bit of tug-of-war for Wheeler, but by and large the aggregate of all these things suggest that Wheeler has been in the top third of the league’s starting pitchers for the last two years. For a team in such desperate need of rotation help, that’s a huge step up. Though the Nick Pivetta-like scars of Trusting the Peripherals are still a little fresh in some spots, this is usually a pretty sound way to go about judging players from a medium-high level.

The Worry

A good deal of stress surrounding this pickup seems to be best explained in a single word: Fear. Fear of a relapsing health issue with Wheeler’s shoulder and/or elbow. Fear that his $23M AAV will keep the Phillies from affording other upgrades this offseason. Fear that the club won’t be able to extract anything above and beyond what Wheeler’s already shown in his career to-date.

While none of us can say for sure that any one player will stay healthy — Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson were the closest to “sure things” any team could have picked up last offseason and, well... — Wheeler has been healthy lately, and that’s as good a starting point as you could reasonably hope for.

As for the money, the Phillies are still somewhere in the vicinity of being $40-50 million below the second tax threshold, which is the first one to potentially impact draft status. Exceeding $208M (the first threshold) but staying below $248M simply accrues a surtax; purely money. Even then, exceeding $249M only drops the highest pick 10 spots. It does not result in a forfeiture in and of itself. For a team squarely in a contention window, payroll is not an excuse. It’s certainly not an excuse now, in this moment even after bringing Wheeler aboard, and it’s hardly a justification for skipping out on adding talent later on. It’s a possibility to acknowledge, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted at face value if the club cites these thresholds as deterrents for adding star-level players. Plus, the team has big money coming off the books after this season (Robertson, Jake Arrieta) anyway. They’re by no means hamstrung.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The biggest mystery here is whether Wheeler truly has some heretofore hidden value waiting to be unlocked, whether the smattering of intriguing peripherals can be transformed into a true No. 2 starter package. Or better. At the same time, it’s worth considering that, even if Wheeler is the same pitcher that he’s been over these last two seasons over the bulk of this contract, he might be worth it already. Valuations like $/WAR are not my favorite, but if the 2019 value of a win holds ($8 million, per Fangraphs), Wheeler only needs to hit an average of 2.9 fWAR per year to be of fair value. He’s averaged 4.5 fWAR in his resurgent past two seasons. Ideally, you’d hope for more than that, but maybe this is just what a solidly mid-rotation arm should cost.

Free agency is an inherently risky business. We’re taught to fear the back end of every contract that’s longer than two years, especially for pitchers. But what the Phillies have done in picking up Zack Wheeler is something we’ve wanted them to do so desperately for years: Upgrade their starting rotation in a meaningful way. Plus, they spite a division rival in the process for bonus points. They’re already better than they were at the end of last season, with more moves to come.