For the first time since 2013, the Phillies will have more than one player in the All-Star Game.
Surprised? J.T. Realmuto wasn’t.
Zack Wheeler was named to the National League team Sunday evening, as expected, after pitching as well as anyone this side of New York Mets ace/wizard Jacob deGrom. But Wheeler will have an unexpected travel companion to next Tuesday night’s game in Denver. Realmuto, the star catcher who just went through what he described as “one of the worst slumps of my career,” was selected to his third All-Star Game.
“I thought it was a possibility,” Realmuto said. “It wasn’t necessarily on my mind. I knew there was a chance, just with the player voting and the manager vote, that I would get in, especially because when they did those votings I was hitting a lot better.”
Realmuto was selected by the players and managers in a voting process that took place two or three weeks ago. Manager Joe Girardi informed Wheeler and Realmuto of their selections before Sunday’s 11-1 thrashing by the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park.
Wheeler, at least, knew for sure this was coming. Entering play Sunday, he led the majors in strikeouts (139) and innings pitched (114) and had a 2.05 ERA, fourth-best in the NL and sixth in baseball.
But it marks the first All-Star Game selection for Wheeler, who has risen from the ranks of solid starters to elite in two seasons with the Phillies. Since he signed a five-year, $118 million contract — the third-largest free-agent deal in club history — the 31-year-old right-hander has a 2.38 ERA, 192 strikeouts, and only 41 walks in 185 innings.
“It’s kind of what you dream about growing up,” Wheeler said of adding “All-Star” to his credentials. “I haven’t won many awards. I don’t even think I’ve won anything since I’ve been in the big leagues, no player of the week or month or whatever it may be. This is pretty cool, right? This is one of the biggest ones besides Cy Young or something like that. I can tell my son and future kids I was an All-Star. It’s pretty cool.”
In previous seasons, Wheeler said he “always kind of shot it down” about the possibility of being an All-Star because he tended to pitch better in the second half. In 2018, for instance, he had a 4.44 ERA before the break compared to 1.68 after it. Ditto for 2019, when he had a 4.69 ERA in his first 19 starts and a 2.83 mark in his last 12..
But Wheeler pitched well from the jump last year in the pandemic-shortened season. This season, he has completed at least seven innings in 11 of 17 starts, allowed three earned runs or fewer 15 times, and struck out at least 10 batters five times. He leads all pitchers with 5.5 wins above replacement, as measured by Baseball-Reference.com.
“It’s mechanically being sound and being able to repeat it and just have confidence in myself also and the pitches,” Wheeler said of his first-half success. “I think my stuff has gotten better also, command-wise and stuff-wise. All that combined definitely helps you go in that direction.”
Realmuto was hampered early in the season by a bruised left hand. He entered Sunday ranked sixth in OPS (.787) and bWAR (1.6) among NL catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. His sixth-inning triple Saturday night interrupted a 3-for-37 skid at the plate. And 13 consecutive runners have stolen a base against him, a career high.
But Realmuto is widely regarded by his peers as the best catcher in the league, if not all of baseball. Considering the All-Star Game is built around big-name players, it wasn’t entirely surprising to see him chosen over, say, less-heralded Milwaukee Brewers catcher Omar Narváez, who entered Sunday batting .303 with an .856 OPS and 2.2 bWAR.
“I try to conduct myself in a manner that I get as much respect from the other players and managers as I can,” Realmuto said. “I take a lot of pride in that. I try to play as hard as I can, I try to be a competitor. The fact that they voted me in even without the best numbers that I’ve had in my career means a lot to me.”
On merit, second baseman Jean Segura was the Phillies’ biggest All-Star snub. Entering play Sunday, he was tied for second in the NL with a .327 average and ranked second among NL second basemen with 2.6 bWAR. But he also recently missed two weeks with a strained groin, an injury that likely cost him a chance at his third All-Star selection.
Wheeler said his family already began sketching out plans to join him in Colorado. The All-Star Game was originally scheduled to be played in Atlanta, less than an hour from Wheeler’s hometown. But Major League Baseball pulled the event in April in response to a controversial voting bill adopted in Georgia.
“That would’ve been very cool,” Wheeler said of pitching in an Atlanta All-Star Game. “I was kind of looking forward to it. But whatever happened happened, and it’s in Colorado now. That’s where we’re going.”
Wheeler is scheduled to make his final start before the All-Star break Wednesday night in Chicago, which would line him up to potentially start the All-Star Game. NL manager Dave Roberts is expected to name a starter on the eve of the game.
Surely that would be the cherry on top of Wheeler’s first All-Star experience.
“I haven’t thought of that,” he said. “I think just being there is enough.”.