Zack Wheeler lost the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday night by the thinnest of margins as he finished just 10 points behind Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, eliminating the chance for the Phillies to sweep the league’s two premier awards.
Wheeler and Burnes each had 12 first-place votes, but Burnes finished with 151 points to Wheeler’s 141. The difference came down the ballot as Burnes had 14 second-place votes to Wheeler’s nine. Max Scherzer of the Dodgers finished third with six first-place votes and 113 points in the voting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Wheeler led the majors in innings (213⅓) and paced the NL in strikeouts (247), but that was not enough to eclipse Burnes, who led the majors with a 2.43 ERA but pitched 46 fewer innings than Wheeler. Burnes’ 167 innings pitched are the lowest for a Cy Young winner in a full season.
Robbie Ray of the Blue Jays won the AL Cy Young Award after leading the AL in ERA (2.84), innings (193⅓), strikeouts (248), and WHIP (1.045). A Phillies pitcher has not won the Cy Young Award since Roy Halladay in 2011.
In a season when teams stressed caution with pitchers following a 60-game sprint, Wheeler was a workhorse. He made 32 starts, averaged 6⅔ innings per start, and pitched into the seventh inning 20 times. But he was more than just an innings eater as his ERA (2.78) ranked fifth in the NL and his walks per nine (1.94) ranked fourth.
It also didn’t help that Wheeler was pitching in front of baseball’s worst defensive team, which is proven by his 2.59 FIP, which trailed only Burnes’ 1.63. The advanced metric is similar to ERA but accounts for only things a pitcher can control so it can’t be affected by poor defense.
The Phillies will have another chance to win an award on Thursday as Bryce Harper is considered the favorite to be named the NL’s MVP. Washington’s Juan Soto and San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. are the other finalists.
Wheeler joined Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, Jim Bunning, and Grover Cleveland Alexander as the only Phillies pitchers to log 200 or more innings and strike out 240 or more batters. A Phillies pitcher has logged 200 or more innings 283 times in franchise history and Wheeler’s 10.42 strikeouts per nine innings is the second-highest rate among all of them.
The Phillies signed Wheeler two years ago more for the promise they saw in his right arm than what he had been able to accomplish in his first five seasons. But few would have imagined what happened this season as Wheeler became a Cy Young contender.
In two seasons, Wheeler, 31, has greatly outperformed the five-year, $118 million contract he signed in December 2019. Over the past two seasons, Wheeler ranks second in WAR among all starting pitchers, fourth in ERA, and second in FIP.
Wheeler battled injuries during his time with the Mets and posted a roughly league-average ERA over five seasons. But he did have a fastball that sat in the upper 90s and an ability to rack up strikeouts. The Phillies thought he could complement Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation. It did not take long to see that Wheeler could be much more as he quickly asserted himself as the staff’s top pitcher. And now he’s one of the league’s top arms.
The Phillies have ground to make up to catch the World Series champion Braves and they approach next season with a slew of questions as they enter what should be a busy offseason. They have two openings in the outfield and uncertainty at third base and shortstop. They need a closer and late-inning arms and could be in the market for a starting pitcher to fill out the rotation.
There’s heavy lifting to be done before the season starts on March 31. But they do at least know who will be on the mound that afternoon in Houston against the Astros.