CLEARWATER, Fla. — Zack Wheeler’s outing on April 14, 2021 was not his best. The Phillies were at Citi Field, and rather than show his former team what it was missing out on, the right-handed starter gave up two earned runs on three hits, a hit batsman, and a walk in his first inning of work against the Mets. By the end of the second inning, he was at 46 pitches.
Wheeler calmly walked back to the dugout. He saw Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham, and made a prediction.
“I’m going to go seven,” he said.
Wheeler struck out the side in the third. He allowed one hit in the fourth, one hit in the fifth, and two hits in the sixth. He made it to the seventh inning but didn’t finish it. Either way, to Cotham, Wheeler’s point had been made.
“He didn’t even allow himself to think that it was not his day,” Cotham said. “He was going to get it done.’”
At a time when teams are scaling their starting pitchers back, Wheeler is wired to go six, seven, eight or even nine innings. His 213⅓ innings pitched led all of MLB last season. It’s something he takes pride in, and he’s not alone. In 2021, the Phillies’ five starters — Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Ranger Suárez, Kyle Gibson, and Aaron Nola — tied for third among all 30 MLB teams in innings pitched per games started with 5⅔.
Wheeler, a Georgia native, was raised on former Braves pitchers John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. He grew up watching starting pitchers go deep into games, and started to set the same expectations for himself. But Suárez, who is 26 and grew up in Venezuela, wasn’t shaped by the pitchers of that generation. Instead, his desire to go deep into games was bred out of his time around his four rotation mates, who are all older than him and have more big-league experience.
“I take it as a challenge,” Suárez said in Spanish. “Normally, they throw seven or eight innings. If they’re throwing seven or eight, I want to do the same. Every game, I’m thinking nine innings. And we go from there.”
It’s an old-school mentality, but it’s one that suits the Phillies’ needs well. With a bullpen that has been taxed the past few seasons, having starters who can go deep is essential. Because of the shortened spring training due to the 99-day lockout, manager Joe Girardi is planning to hold back his starters a bit in the first month of the season. But once they get going, it will be hard to rein them in.
When asked if he could recall a specific time when one of the starters pushed back on being taking out of a game, catcher J.T. Realmuto laughed. There are too many to count.
“They want to keep the ball because they all take pride in that,” Realmuto said. “Even if they pitch a shutout for five innings, they don’t think they’re doing their job. Their job is to go pitch seven or eight.”
Realmuto knows most teams shy away from longer starts, because walk rates tend to go up, and strikeout rates tend to go down. But he believes the Phillies’ starters are equipped to see hitters a third time through the order, unlike other staffs. All five starters have at least four pitches in their arsenal, and can throw them to both sides of the plate, allowing them to get creative late in games.
“A fastball-slider guy is easy to face three times, but if you’ve got a guy like Nola, who throws two different types of fastballs, or Eflin, who throws everything under the sun, it’s harder,” Realmuto said. “It’s the same thing with Ranger and Gibby and Wheeler. They all throw four or five or six pitches to each side of the plate, so that just helps them that third time through. We can show the hitter a pitch that they haven’t even seen yet.
“As a hitter, you never know how they’re going to get you out, because they can all do it multiple ways.”
There is a long season ahead, but for the Phillies’ five starters, the goal remains the same: to pitch well and as deep as Girardi will let them.
“A lot of teams are going away from that,” Realmuto said. “But for me, with the team we’ve built, our strength is our starting staff. So it doesn’t do us any good for our starters to go five innings, because our bullpen’s going to be tired after a couple of months into the season. Having guys that pitch into the seventh or the eighth, night in and night out, is going to make our bullpen that much more of a strength.
“I think there’s a little healthy competition in the rotation. They’re going to compete with each other to stay on the field for as long as they can, and give the team a chance to win every night.”