By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff
When Zack Wheeler signed with the Phillies via free agency in December of 2019, some fans were apprehensive.
His deal -- 5 years/$118 million -- was awfully similar in structure to the one Patrick Corbin signed just one year earlier with the Washington Nationals.
The main difference? Corbin had broken out in his contract year, becoming one of MLB’s best pitchers while Wheeler had consistent but relatively uninspiring career numbers leading up to his free agency.
He wasted no time winning the favor of the Philly Phaithful.
In his first start, giddy fans sat in awe as Wheeler lit up the radar gun with well-located 99 mph turbo 4-seamers.
During an era of baseball where high velocity is increasingly prevalent, the Phillies hardest thrower was Vince Velasquez. Fans were so deprived of fireballers that they deemed the hurler “Vinny Velo”. He threw 95 mph on average…so Wheeler sitting at 99 mph was understandably jaw-dropping.
However, simply throwing hard would not have sufficed for long if he did not live up to his contract. Coming into the season, Wheeler was widely perceived as a #2 starter with upside. Boy did he ever live up to, and exceed, those expectations.
Through 20 starts as a Phillie, Wheeler has pitched to the tune of a 2.73 ERA, a 1.086 WHIP, and has collected 119 SO in 131.2 innings pitched, being the workhorse starter that the Phillies so desperately needed to pair with Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation.
In the shortened 2020 season, Wheeler posted a 2.92 ERA. It was 0.39 below his career best ERA. In addition, he received Cy Young votes for the first time in his career.
Impressive to say the least, but there was no guarantee he would be the same pitcher in 2021, especially given that he was very streaky during his time in New York. It simply was not a large enough sample size to make any conclusive predictions.
But through nine starts in 2021, Wheeler has managed to outperform his 2020 statistics and metrics. He has looked absolutely untouchable in most of his starts, pounding the zone with heat and occasional sliders. That is all he needs in order to dominate Major League lineups.
He already has one complete game shutout under his belt, and his name is all over the MLB stat leaders lists. Wheeler is 5th in all of baseball in Strikeouts (78), 11th in SP ERA, and #1 in Innings Pitched (68.0).
Compared to last season, Wheeler has significantly improved his strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9). He induced plenty of weak contact in 2020 but dipped to a measly 6.7 SO/9, by far the lowest rate in his career. This season, an uptick in strikeouts has him at 9.8 SO/9, and with it brings a correlation in overall success.
Opponents have an xBA of just .223, an xSLG of .336, and an xWOBA of .268. He has limited opposing players to a total of only 4 HR this season.
In addition, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) dropped from 3.22 in 2020 to 2.57 in 2021. Since he strikes out more batters, the defense has less impact on the outcome of each at-bat, thus he is expected to have a lower ERA.
Wheeler has been everything the Phillies needed, and more. Everyone knew that he had the potential to become this version of himself, but there were no guarantees.
His development into a potential Cy Young candidate and ace of the Phillies pitching staff has been franchise-altering, in a way.
Yet another poor contract eating up space on an already-limited budget would likely have spelled doomed for the Phillies chances of competing during Bryce Harper’s prime years. But this time, the expense was worth every penny.
If the Phillies manage to make the postseason in 2021, I want Zack Wheeler on the mound in Game 1. Therefore, I would like to say "Thank you, Matt Klentak, for at least making one great decision during your tenure in Philadelphia."