Let’s start with a classic game of “guess the mystery players.” These are the WAR totals that four players in the National League put up before the All-Star break:
- Player A: 5.4 fWAR, 5.0 bWAR, 3.6 WARP (average 4.66)
- Player B: 4.6 fWAR, 4.9 bWAR, 3.5 WARP (average 4.33)
- Player C: 4.0 fWAR, 4.3 bWAR, 3.0 WARP (average 3.76)
- Player D: 4.4 fWAR, 3.6 bWAR, 3.3 WARP (average 3.76)
Player A has been the best of the bunch, especially according to FanGraphs WAR, and Player B has been somewhat more valuable than Players C and D by all three measures. However, while Players A, C, and D were widely considered to be the front-runners for NL MVP over the first half of the season, Player B has not been a part of that conversation at all.
If you haven’t already figured it out, here’s who each mysterious player is:
- Player A: Jacob deGrom - 5.4 fWAR, 5.0 bWAR, 3.6 WARP (average 4.66)
- Player B: Zack Wheeler - 4.6 fWAR, 4.9 bWAR, 3.5 WARP (average 4.33)
- Player C: Fernando Tatis Jr. - 4.0 fWAR, 4.3 bWAR, 3.0 WARP (average 3.76)
- Player D: Ronald Acuña Jr. - 4.4 fWAR, 3.6 bWAR, 3.3 WARP (average 3.76)
No version of wins above replacement is a perfect statistic (and averaging all three together is an especially imperfect metric), but WAR is very useful for providing a general sense of how valuable a player has been over any given period of time. In this particular context, what WAR shows us is that Zack Wheeler is absolutely in the mix to finish the 2021 season as the best player in the National League. No matter how you feel about the other candidates, there is – at the very least – a case to be made for the Phillies’ ace.
Brad Miller says because of Jacob deGrom's historical dominance, Zack Wheeler's season is perhaps being overlooked by some.— Tim Kelly (@TimKellySports) July 3, 2021
"What our guy is doing is Cy Young, MVP, it's all of it."
I’ll give you 14 reasons why Zack Wheeler should get MVP votes— The Good Phight (@TheGoodPhight) May 29, 2021
However, despite Wheeler’s absolute dominance throughout the first half of 2021, no one outside of Philadelphia is even talking about his MVP candidacy. Here’s a brief look at the evidence that shows how Zack Wheeler has been ignored.
According to DraftKings, Jacob deGrom is the clear favourite to win MVP, with Tatis and Acuña not far behind (although Acuña will quickly fall down the board due to his horrible season-ending ACL injury). Everyone else is a long shot at this point, and Wheeler is not even on the board.
I can’t be mad at the oddsmakers here. DraftKings isn’t stating that Wheeler is unworthy of the MVP Award, but simply that he is extremely unlikely to win it. And perhaps Wheeler’s chances of winning the award would increase dramatically if he wasn’t being overlooked by the media...
Right now, the NL MVP is _________.— Flippin' Bats Podcast (@FlippinBatsPod) June 24, 2021
Who you got? ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/8T5joAR0JY
The above tweet from last month (and many others like it) is what initially inspired me to write this article. At the time, however, I decided to sum up my thoughts a little more concisely with the following graphic.
Zack Wheeler leads the NL (pitchers AND hitters) in WARP and bWAR. He’s second in fWAR behind only Jacob deGrom. He’s in the top 3 in MLB on all three leaderboards. He deserves way more attention from the national media. @Phillies #RingTheBell pic.twitter.com/J0WGu6FvKB— Leo Morgenstern (@morgensternmlb) June 28, 2021
But a few weeks later, I was re-inspired to get into this conversation after I read Jayson Stark’s midseason awards picks for The Athletic. Stark is an extremely tuned in baseball writer (and a Phillies fan no less), so I was particularly surprised and disappointed to see that, while Jacob deGrom was Stark’s selection for mid-season NL MVP, Zack Wheeler didn’t even make the top ten. If you are willing to consider a pitcher for MVP, as Stark clearly is, I just don’t see how you can justify leaving Wheeler out of the top five, let alone the top ten.
The All-Star Game
It almost feels like Dave Roberts forgot to bring Zack Wheeler into the game until now— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) July 14, 2021
Not only did Dave Roberts seem to forgot to use Wheeler until the final batter, but I didn’t hear Wheeler discussed on the broadcast once until he came into the game. Wheeler has been one of the most incredible players in the game this season, and that is exactly who the All-Star Game is meant to celebrate. Instead, Zack Wheeler was treated like an afterthought.
I understand that Wheeler doesn’t make for as interesting a story as deGrom (a future Hall of Famer with a 1.08 ERA) or Tatis (a 22-year-old stud who just signed a $340 million contract). He isn’t the most marketable star in the league, so it’s fine if he isn’t getting his own hype videos or starring in any All-Star Game commercials. But to see respected journalists and World Series-winning managers – people who are supposed to be the most knowledgeable baseball minds out there – completely overlooking Zack Wheeler’s MVP-caliber season? That just seems unfair.
The bar is higher for pitchers to garner serious MVP consideration. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I understand the logic behind it. After all, starting pitchers only play once every five days, and they have their own award that position players aren’t eligible for.
What I do not understand, however, is how someone could put Jacob deGrom in first place on their ballot and then not vote for Zack Wheeler at all. In terms of overall value, they are remarkably close. And in terms of innings pitched (not playing often enough is a common reason cited as to why pitchers should not win the MVP) Wheeler is significantly outpacing deGrom.
Admittedly, deGrom winning the MVP makes for a much more compelling story. He’s the best pitcher in baseball in the middle of perhaps the best season of his career. He has a chance to set a new record for the lowest single-season ERA in the live ball era. He’s already won two Cy Young awards in his career, and this might just be the season that cements his status as a future Hall of Famer.
But end-of-season awards are supposed to be about single season performance, not career achievements. And in just the 2021 season, Wheeler and deGrom have been remarkably close in value. In fact, the only reason that deGrom’s WAR totals look any better than Wheeler’s are because deGrom has been terrific at the plate.
Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom pitching WAR comparison (prior to All-Star break)
- Wheeler: 4.5 fWAR, 4.8 bWAR, 3.5 WARP
- deGrom: 4.8 fWAR, 4.4 bWAR, 3.4 WARP
It’s hard to imagine that deGrom will be able to maintain his 114 wRC+ over the second half (his career average is 34 wRC+), so pitching WAR is probably more helpful for predicting how both pitchers will fare over the rest of the season. It’s also worth mentioning that over the past three months (April 15-July 15), Wheeler actually has a higher pitching fWAR (4.2) than deGrom (4.0).
In conclusion, I should stress that I’m not arguing Zack Wheeler has been the best player in the league this season. What I am saying is that he has been in the same stratosphere as Jacob deGrom and Fernando Tatis Jr., and to call either of them the first-half NL MVP without even including Wheeler in the conversation just doesn’t make any sense.