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2021 player previews: Zack Wheeler

The 1A of the Phillies’ rotation looks to build upon a strong debut season

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals
Zack Wheeler turned in a strong debut season for the Phillies in 2020
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies were in desperate need of rotation help heading into the 2020 season, and general manager Matt Klentak’s primary means of addressing that need was signing Zack Wheeler to a free agent contract. At the time, many people thought the Phillies had overpaid Wheeler. It felt like the Phillies had paid top-of-the-rotation price for a guy who had largely been a mid-rotation starter.

Klentak might have made some mistakes in building his bullpen last year, but when it came to the big rotation move, he seemed to get it right. Wheeler was very good in 2020, and along with Aaron Nola, the Phillies have a front of their rotation that can match up with almost any team in baseball.

What could go right

The easy answer is that Wheeler just needs to repeat his 2020 season and that will be plenty right. But there are a couple of ways that Wheeler could possibly turn in an even better year.

Wheeler’s strikeout numbers were down in 2020, and while that would normally seem worrisome, there’s evidence that it was more by design than due to a decrease in effectiveness. His velocity and pitch movement were essentially unchanged from previous years, and the biggest difference seemed to be an improved sinker that resulted in more ground balls earlier in the count. His ground ball percentage shot up from 43.2% in 2019 to 55.9%, and the percentage of hard contact decreased from 31.4% to 23.1%. And when batters did hit the ball in the air, it generally stayed in the park. He gave up a league low 0.4 home runs per nine innings.

While getting easy outs early in the count is good, it’s generally a good thing when a pitcher strikes out a lot of batters too. If Wheeler can somehow maintain his stellar ground ball/fly ball ratio and increase his strikeouts at the same time, he could find himself in the Cy Young conversation.

Wheeler could also show a little more longevity in games. While he avoided short outings - he pitched into the sixth inning in every start - he only made it into the eighth inning in two out of his eleven starts.

I felt that manager Joe Girardi had too quick of a hook, especially considering how dreadful the bullpen was. Wheeler left the game with a lead eight times, yet only earned four wins for the season. But some of the blame also lies with Wheeler.

There were times when it felt like Wheeler’s effectiveness had begun to wane at the time of his removal. And while the bullpen should have been able to protect a lead more often than they did, there were times when the opponent’s comeback had already begun with Wheeler still in the game. The hope is that in a non-COVID season he’ll have more durability and be given a longer leash.

What could go wrong in 2021

A decrease in strikeouts is always risky for a pitcher, and if it continues in 2021, Wheeler might not see the same results. Most of the contact he allowed in 2020 was weak, but if that becomes a little stronger, some of those ground balls might start finding holes more often, and more of those fly balls could reach the fences. He was also very dependent on erasing runners via double plays, but its difficult to consistently depend on that.

Wheeler also had a well-publicized injury to his fingernail that resulted in a missed start. He had an offseason procedure to correct the long-standing issue, but there’s always a concern there.

What to expect in 2021

Most projections have Wheeler taking a step back in 2021. There’s some concern that the home run rate was unsustainably low, and with a season to prepare for the more grounder-centric approach, hitters will be better prepared to deal with him this year. But even if he does regress a bit, considering how good he was in 2020, that should still make him a solid pitcher and a definite asset as the team’s second best starter.