Zack Wheeler unleashed 99-mph blurs to the Atlanta Braves hitters April 3 at Citizens Bank Park. He slung downward-sloping sliders that spun like Frisbees across the strike zone. He struck out Freddie Freeman on a slider up and away and Marcell Ozuna on a fastball at the knees.
If Dave Eiland didn’t know better, he would have guessed he was watching Jacob deGrom.
“Listen,” Eiland, the former New York Mets pitching coach, said by phone a few days later, “I’m not going to sit here and say anybody, pitch for pitch, is right there with Jake deGrom. That’s not fair. I’m not making the statement that Zack Wheeler’s just as good as Jake deGrom.
“What I am saying is, Zack’s starting to wander around that same neighborhood.”
Just as the Phillies wagered 16 months ago when they signed Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract, the third-largest free-agent deal in franchise history.
It wasn’t a sure thing. Wheeler had neither thrown 200 innings in a season nor made an All-Star team in his major-league career. But he was a former first-round pick who was still in the minors when he got traded straight-up for Carlos Beltran. He was also 29, four years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, and had a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts for New York in 2018-19.
If Wheeler was a stock, it was a good time to buy, even if the price was high.
So far, Wheeler is paying off like shares of Zoom last year. Since the beginning of last season, he has a 2.83 ERA in 82⅔ innings. He has overpowered hitters with a fastball that has averaged 97.2 mph so far this season, or gotten outs early in the count. His ground-ball rate (54.6%) and rate of soft contact (20.9%) put him among the top five starting pitchers the last two years.
“He’s better than I ever gave him credit for,” said a scout from a National League team. “I thought he was a pretty-delivery guy. He always had big stuff. But I didn’t think he had the moxie he’s showing now. He’s matured a lot the last two years. He’s out there under total control, really challenging hitters. The bell has rung for him.”
It’s almost impossible to believe the Mets demoted Wheeler to triple A three years ago.
Fixing the mechanics
Wheeler’s ascension to the ranks of an elite major-league starter grew out of that disappointment.
Eiland took over as the Mets’ pitching coach after the 2017 season. In spring training of 2018, he tried to make changes to Wheeler’s delivery, specifically shortening his arm stroke to help him find a more consistent release point. The changes didn’t take root immediately.
“Him and I had to sit down by ourselves and have some slightly uncomfortable conversations,” Eiland said, recalling the Mets’ decision to not put Wheeler on the opening-day roster. “A lot of the things I said to him he didn’t like to hear. But he needed to hear it.”
Wheeler made only one triple-A start before being recalled. Through five starts, he had a 5.79 ERA. With all the focus on his mechanics, his fastball was averaging only 94.4 mph, an indication to Eiland that Wheeler lacked the confidence to repeat his delivery and throw his heater where he wanted it.
“He wasn’t letting it eat, so to speak,” Eiland said. “I remember calling him in one time and saying, ‘Zack, you have 95, 96, 97, sometimes 98 in the tank. Why are you throwing 92, 93?’”
As Eiland recalls, everything came out in a between-starts bullpen session in Cincinnati in early May.
“We talked about it, and I said, ‘The delivery is there. Your muscle memory is there. You’re repeating. Now let it go. Pitch in more. [If] you knock guys down, you knock ‘em down. [If] you hit ‘em, you hit ‘em. But let it fly,’” Eiland said. “All of a sudden those 91, 92, 93s turned into 96, 97, a couple 98s. He was pitching in to lefties; he was elevating. It was like, OK, here he goes. And off he went.”
It wasn’t that simple, of course. Wheeler’s slider improved, too. He began throwing his changeup with a splitter grip. He learned when to elevate his four-seam fastball. Mostly he figured out what type of pitcher he is, realizing he had several ways to get hitters out.
But beginning with that start in Cincinnati on May 9, 2018, when he allowed one run in six innings, Wheeler turned a corner. He posted a 2.86 ERA in 24 starts over the rest of the season. As Eiland said, “He was as good as deGrom, maybe better. And deGrom won the Cy Young that year.”
Wheeler faltered in the first half of 2019 but regained his groove in the second half. Only seven pitchers have a lower ERA than Wheeler’s 2.83 mark in at least 150 innings since the 2019 All-Star break: deGrom (1.74), Gerrit Cole (2.17), Jack Flaherty (2.26), Shane Bieber (2.42), Yu Darvish (2.46), Clayton Kershaw (2.65), and Hyun Jin Ryu (2.82). His streak of 29 consecutive starts of at least five innings ended last Friday night in Atlanta when he struggled with his fastball command. Even then, though, he left with only a 3-1 deficit with two out in the fourth.
“I feel like every year’s gotten a little bit better, a little bit more comfortable,” Wheeler said in spring training. “Coming in every year you expect to do well, and this year I’m building off of two good years in a row.”
Opposing hitters notice a difference, too. Before 2018, Wheeler’s fastball was “noncompetitive,” according to Freeman, because his command was inconsistent. Moreover, he hadn’t mastered the slider enough that hitters needed to respect it as a potential strike.
“He’s a lot more mature as a pitcher than he was a couple years ago,” said Freeman, the Braves’ All-Star first baseman. “He would throw a lot of pitches that you could easily just say, ‘That’s a ball,’ out of his hand. If every pitch is a pitch where you have to think about taking, it’s a whole new ballgame. That’s what he’s learned to do. It’s like deGrom. Every time you take a pitch, he makes you want to swing at it.”
There’s that comparison again.
Measuring up to the best
Wheeler and deGrom have similar repertoires — upper-90s fastballs, sliders, and changeups. DeGrom’s command may be slightly better, though as Eiland said, not by much.
As teammates in a Mets rotation that was supposed to stay together for years, Wheeler measured himself against deGrom. Eiland labeled it a “friendly competition,” each trying to one-up the other.
It’s doubtful that has changed now that they play for rival teams.
“Whenever deGrom would go out there and throw seven or eight shutout innings with 12 Ks, you try to go up there and beat him,” said Wheeler, scheduled to face the Mets on Wednesday night in New York. “It was just a good competition. I think it helped us out.”
The Mets let Eiland go midway through the 2019 season before allowing Wheeler to walk at the end of the year. Free agents usually get paid based on past performance. In Wheeler, the Phillies saw the rare free agent whose best days were still ahead.
Unsurprisingly, Eiland agreed with that assessment.
“The first half of ’18 when I got [to the Mets], all I heard from some people in the front office was, ‘We need to trade Wheeler,’” Eiland said. “I’m like, ‘No you don’t He’s going to be better than what you’re seeing now.’ He hit free agency at the perfect time for him. He was starting to come into his own.”
And here he is, a fully formed ace living comfortably in deGrom’s universe.