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In Dallas, Ga., 30 or so miles northwest of the center of Atlanta, an inning-by-inning LED scoreboard rises from behind the left-field fence at East Paulding High School. Below the line score — between ads for Rodney’s Bar-B-Que And Catering and Stars And Strikes Getaway-n-Play — a sign lets everyone know, in block capitals, that it was a gift from Zack Wheeler.

“When I was there,” Wheeler said recently, “I always looked up and thought, ‘Man, why don’t we have one of those nine-inning scoreboards like some of these other good baseball schools?’ Paulding’s a good baseball school. I wanted to do something for my coach when I left. I was like, ‘That’s what I’ll do.’”

That coach, Tony Boyd, remains grateful for Wheeler’s generosity. School administrators appreciated his thoughtfulness. But the gesture revealed something more. Because Wheeler didn’t buy the scoreboard after getting his first big-league win or even his first start. He did it when he was in single-A ball in 2010, three years before making his major-league debut, seven years before he injected a prescription drug into his stomach every morning for six months to overcome a career-stalling injury, and a decade before he took his place among baseball’s elite.

Wheeler, 31, will pitch in his first All-Star Game on Tuesday night in Denver. When the Phillies signed him in December 2019 to the third-largest free-agent contract in franchise history — five years, $118 million — he had not yet pitched 200 innings in a season. But the front office, led by then-general manager Matt Klentak, believed it was paying more for upside than past performance. It’s usually the other way around with free agents.

Nineteen months later, the Phillies look prescient. Wheeler has a 2.50 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 190 ⅔ innings over 29 starts dating to last season. This year, he leads all starters in innings pitched (119 ⅔) and ranks second in strikeouts (145) and fourth in the NL with a 2.26 ERA.

» READ MORE: Phillies will have two All-Stars in Zack Wheeler, J.T. Realmuto

“With [Jacob] deGrom doing what he’s doing, it doesn’t get talked about enough. Because deGrom has been amazing, historic,” Phillies utilityman Brad Miller said, referring to the New York Mets’ ace and Wheeler’s former teammate. “But what our guy is doing is Cy Young, MVP, it’s all of it. It’s incredible.”

And not at all surprising to the folks back home in Georgia. To them, Wheeler’s exceeding talent is matched only by the matter-of-factness with which he regards his success.

“I never had anybody that good, not in all my coaching years,” said Boyd, a high school baseball coach for 38 years and winner of more than 500 games. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The rise

Sean O’Connor flipped on the television, leaned back on his couch, and watched Wheeler strike out a career-high 14 batters recently against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I said to my wife, ‘God, that’s not what he looked like in high school,’” the longtime scout said by phone. “He’s a grown man. He was a little puppy when he was in high school. He had broad shoulders and you knew he was going to fill out. But he was a skinny, skinny kid. It was actually comical how skinny he was.”

Back then, in 2008, O’Connor mined amateur talent for the San Francisco Giants. He lived in Cartersville, Ga., one town over from Dallas. The Atlanta area was a hotbed for baseball talent, so scouts knew to check out the local summer-ball scene. O’Connor saw Wheeler with the East Cobb Astros, a well-known program that produced dozens of pros, including catcher Buster Posey, the Giants’ first-round pick that June.

By the time O’Connor came around for East Paulding’s practices and preseason games in 2009, Wheeler had quit basketball, hit the gym, and gained about 15 pounds of muscle and at least 5 mph on a fastball that reached the mid-90s. His breaking stuff was still developing, but with that heater, he scarcely needed it.

O’Connor was smitten.

“I was standing right down in the bullpen when he was warming up his first game his senior year,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. This is going to be interesting.’”

Wheeler’s starts were must-see events for O’Connor. But his counterparts felt the same, and pretty soon the crush of radar gun-toting scouts swelled from 15 to 20 to, well, who could keep track?

Boyd suspected that might happen. He was forewarned by Wheeler’s father.

Barry Wheeler played amateur baseball for 15 years. His wife, Elaine, played competitive softball. Their middle son, Adam, got drafted in the 13th round by the New York Yankees in 2001 and didn’t allow a home run in 83 innings in the minors before shoulder and elbow injuries derailed him in single A.

But while scouts were drawn to Adam’s games in high school, the Wheelers knew they’d fall over themselves for a glimpse of Zack.

» READ MORE: New Phillies starter Zack Wheeler believes he can reach another level, just like Gerrit Cole | Scott Lauber (from December 2019)

“I remember talking to his dad just before he started back to school his senior year, and he said, ‘You’re going to be getting a lot of calls. There’ll be people asking because they’re trying to plan when he’s pitching so they can come out,’” Boyd recalled. “I was like, ‘Mr. Wheeler, I can take care of that because this is a fun ride for me just like it is for you guys.’”

Wheeler went 9-0 with a 0.54 ERA, 151 strikeouts, and 20 walks in 77 ⅔ innings as a senior. He struck out 15 batters in one game, a school record that has since been eclipsed. In another, he pitched a no-hitter against Mill Creek in the state playoffs.

“On the way off the field, the coach told me, ‘I’ve been around a lot of them, and he’s the very best I’ve ever seen,’” Boyd recalled. “He said, ‘It was a man among boys today, and believe me, we weren’t the men.’”

Wheeler was the hottest stock in Atlanta since Coca-Cola, and the Braves were lining up to draft him with the seventh overall pick.

O’Connor was never going to let that happen.

The draft

High school pitchers are the riskiest bets in baseball’s amateur draft. Scouting is all about projection, and it’s a crapshoot to project how an 18-year-old right-hander will look at 21 or 22.

“The way we talk about it is, you’re in a schoolyard and you’re picking up sides, but the game’s going to be played five years from now. Who you taking?” said Giants senior adviser John Barr, the team’s scouting director in 2009.

But the 2009 draft class teemed with arms. Nine of the first 12 picks that year were pitchers, including Stephen Strasburg, a college right-hander who went first overall, as expected, to Washington. Many teams grouped Wheeler with Arizona State’s Mike Leake, Vanderbilt lefty Mike Minor, Stanford reliever Drew Storen, high schoolers Tyler Matzek and Shelby Miller, and others.

Wheeler guessed he would wind up with Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Francisco, or Atlanta, who picked fourth through seventh, respectively. The Orioles held a private workout for him at Camden Yards (Klentak worked for them then and was in attendance), while Giants director of player personnel Dick Tidrow and general manager Brian Sabean flew to Georgia to lay eyes on Wheeler.

“It was weird,” Wheeler said. “You expected it, but warming up in the bullpen, it’s just tons of people standing there. And then afterward you would find out who was actually there, like big guys from the organizations. I probably overthrew a few different times, but you’re in high school. It’s hard to control yourself.”

The Braves had a history of drafting Atlanta-area talent, from Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann in 2002 to Jason Heyward in 2007. But after the Orioles took California high school right-hander Matt Hobgood, the Giants, picking sixth overall, decided they liked the long view of Wheeler more than Leake or Minor, who were older and likely to move more quickly through the minors.

“The Braves scout and I were good friends, and I told him, ‘You can go look somewhere else,’” O’Connor said. “All I could think of was, what’s this going to look like in five years? In my last report, I think I wrote, ‘It won’t be long before he’ll be throwing 100 mph.’ I think I was right two years later.”

» READ MORE: New father, $118-million man Zack Wheeler arrives to his Phillies debut with his mind at ease | Scott Lauber (from July 2020)

By then, though, Wheeler was doing it in the Mets organization. The Giants dealt him straight-up for All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran and cash in a win-now move at the 2011 trade deadline. But they missed the postseason and Beltran left in free agency that winter. Wheeler made his major-league debut in 2013 — on the road in Atlanta, of course.

Baseball is funny that way. One pick from being a Brave, Wheeler has made more career starts against his hometown team (19) than any team save the Nationals (23).

“Now that I look back, I’m kind of glad the Braves didn’t choose me,” Wheeler said. “Because I would’ve had to deal with a lot of stuff at a young age. It was nice to kind of get away and sort of do my thing and develop.”

The injuries

The Mets called up Wheeler one year after Matt Harvey and one year before deGrom. He posted a 3.50 ERA and 271 strikeouts in 285 ⅓ innings over his first two major-league seasons, showing the promise that had New Yorkers believing in him as part of baseball’s next great starting rotation.

But Wheeler blew out his elbow in spring training in 2015 and needed Tommy John surgery. He missed one season and had setbacks that caused him to miss 2016, too. The Mets made the playoffs both years, reaching the World Series in 2015.

Wheeler came back for 2017 but pitched through pain. He had a 5.21 ERA in 17 starts when he was diagnosed with a season-ending stress fracture in his right arm. Team doctors prescribed FORTEO, a drug that improves bone density and strength. It is commonly used to treat osteoporosis and elderly people at high risk of breaking bones.

“I wanted to pitch, man,” Wheeler said. “[The Mets] were coming off their playoff runs, and I wanted to be a part of it. I just couldn’t do it, and it killed me. They mentioned the FORTEO shots, and I was like, ‘Why not?’ At that point, you’re just like, ‘Got to do something.’ So I did that for six months.’”

Health-wise, it changed everything. Wheeler made 29 starts in 2018 and 31 in 2019.

» READ MORE: Zack Wheeler's dominance this season for the Phillies stems from him being a ‘thumber.’ Let J.T. Realmuto explain.

Stuff-wise, though, Wheeler’s fastball remained electric but his command inconsistent. He didn’t even make the Mets’ opening-day roster in 2018.

But after Wheeler got called up in April, pitching coach Dave Eiland urged him to unleash his upper-90s fastball rather than trying to pace himself to go deeper into games. His slider got sharper, too, which made his curveball and changeup better. And after the All-Star break in 2018, he had a 1.68 ERA.

“He was better than deGrom the second half,” Eiland said. “And deGrom won the Cy Young that year.”

Wheeler said he improved by observing deGrom’s between-starts bullpen sessions. He noted the way deGrom “just pounds glove-side fastballs” to lock in his mechanics and maintain his command. Wheeler mimicked what he saw.

“Everybody always called me ‘injury prone,’ but I had one surgery that kept me out for two seasons,” he said. “It is what it is. I couldn’t do anything about it. But I watched a lot of baseball when I was hurt. I watched the best pitchers, how they attacked guys, how they pitched, and I think that definitely helped me out when I came back.”

The All-Star

Wheeler’s 2019 season with the Mets was similar to the year before: inconsistent first half but dominant second half that served as a platform for his free agency.

The Phillies were shopping for a starter to pair with Aaron Nola atop the rotation. They looked hard at right-hander Kyle Gibson, but he didn’t want to come to the East Coast. Gibson signed a three-year, $28 million deal with the Rangers and has been one of the best starters in the American League this season.

But on his best day, Gibson’s stuff isn’t as electric as Wheeler’s. And the Phillies saw more upside in Wheeler than fellow free agents Dallas Keuchel and Madison Bumgarner, less risk than Hyun-Jin Ryu, and half the cost of Gerrit Cole. Although his career to that point had been “clunky,” in the words of one team official, they thought he was just reaching his peak.

Good call.

With the Phillies, Wheeler has gotten his mechanics “perfectly in sync,” as Nola puts it, and gained command of five pitches. His walk rate has dropped from 10.4% in 2017 to 7.4% in 2018, 6.0% in 2019, and 5.6% in the last two seasons. He has weaponized his slider against right-handed hitters and a cutter against lefties. He gets weak contact early in the count as easily as he overpowers hitters with a 99-mph heater.

“It’s not fair to sit here and say that Zack Wheeler’s just as good as Jake deGrom. That’s not what I’m saying,” Eiland said. “But if you want to break it down, compare deGrom and Wheeler’s fastball, their sliders, their changeups, he’s closing in on him. He’s starting to wander around that same neighborhood.”

Said Nola: “He goes 0-1, 0-2 so quick on guys. I haven’t really ever seen that in person. It’s like guys don’t even really have a chance up there.”

It’s what Wheeler looked like all those years ago in Georgia. Boyd told him as much in a text message last month after 12 strikeouts in eight scoreless innings against the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.

“Man, I said, ‘You look so comfortable. It looks like it’s just easy,’” Boyd said. “And that’s the way he was in high school. He told me then, he said, ‘I don’t know, Coach, I just feel really good.’ I just hope he can keep it up. We love him. He knows he can come around here any time he wants to.”

Maybe he could even operate his scoreboard.