Two months into the 2018 season, with Zack Wheeler’s ERA hovering near the 5.50 mark, the New York Mets set out to change his approach. Rather than have him pace himself just to get through five innings, they encouraged him to let loose a four-seam fastball that, unbridled, reaches the upper-90s.
The result: Almost two more miles per hour, on average, and a 2.52 ERA over the next 20 starts.
But the Mets didn’t go far enough. They could have taken away Wheeler’s two-seamer, a slower fastball more commonly known as a sinker and generally a less effective pitch for him than the four-seamer. That’s what the Houston Astros did with Gerrit Cole two years ago, turning him from an occasional All-Star into the best pitcher on the planet.
Wheeler noticed. How could he not? All of baseball marveled at Cole’s rise over the last two seasons, including such dominance on the playoff stage in October that the New York Yankees signed him last week for nine years and $324 million, a record sum for a pitcher.
It’s little wonder, then, that Wheeler is open to a similar adjustment. Never mind that he just received a nine-figure free-agent deal of his own. The Phillies signed the 29-year-old right-hander to that five-year, $118 million contract because they believe he’s still getting better, and the most sensible way to tap into that potential is for pitching coach Bryan Price and manager Joe Girardi to maximize the usage of his best pitches.
“Yeah, of course. Why not?” Wheeler said Monday after he and newly signed shortstop Didi Gregorius were introduced in a news conference at Citizens Bank Park. “[Cole] is one of the guys that sort of has taken that next step from the analytic-type stuff. I really was never into it all that much, but seeing results more than somebody just speaking it to you, that helps you want to get to know it a little bit better.”
Wheeler throws five pitches, a deep and varied repertoire that made him the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft and got him to the big leagues at age 23 in a hyped Mets rotation among aces-in-waiting Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz. He’s also one of only eight National League pitchers to post an ERA of 3.75 or better in at least 60 starts over the last two seasons.
But Wheeler concedes that some pitches are better than others. Some talent evaluators believe that his curveball is a tick ahead of his slider, although the effectiveness of those pitches is relatively comparable. There’s no doubt, though, which of Wheeler’s fastballs is the best.
"I don't think it's a secret these days, so I can say it: My two-seam gets hit a little bit more than my four-seam," Wheeler said. "So, maybe it's [beneficial] throwing more four-seams. That's one of the smaller things that you can do to get better without having to change too much and get in your own head."
The numbers support Wheeler’s self-assessment. Last season, hitters slugged .488 against his sinker compared with .337 against his four-seamer. Yet he still threw his sinker 29% of the time compared with 30% four-seamers.
Look beyond the numbers, though. Rhys Hoskins recalled the Phillies' knocking around Wheeler for four first-inning runs on July 7 in New York. Seven weeks later, they scored one run against him in six innings at Citizens Bank Park.
“The stuff just seemed to have a little more jump to it, for whatever reason that is,” Hoskins said Monday. “It seemed like he got stronger as the year went on. Hopefully, he can harness that and make it an every-fifth-day kind of thing instead of just a second-half thing.”
Regardless, the Phillies will slot in Wheeler behind Aaron Nola and hope that the addition of another solidly reliable starter will improve the rotation in aggregate. With only about $6 million to go before they reach a $208 million luxury-tax threshold that ownership does not yet seem willing to cross, there’s little room to add another starter, especially at the going rate for free agents.
It will bear watching to see if the Phillies ask Wheeler to ditch his sinker almost completely, a la the Astros with Cole. It’s unfair to expect Wheeler’s career trajectory to mirror Cole’s moonshot, but the Phillies are betting that a pitcher who hasn’t won 20 games, worked 200 innings in a season, or made an All-Star team will check a few of those boxes over the span of the third-richest free-agent contract in franchise history, after Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million) and Cliff Lee (five years, $120 million).
“We are pretty comparable, stuff-wise, but he’s on this level. That’s where I want to get to,” Wheeler said, raising his hand in the air to illustrate Cole’s stature. “I think I’m capable of it, and I think it’s just figuring out a couple things like he did. He always had it, but he just finally figured it out and just took that next step and hasn’t let up since.”