In any other year, the pertinent number going into Zack Wheeler’s first Phillies start would be 118,000,000 -- as in the overall value of his contract, the third-largest free-agent payday in franchise history.
But as everyone knows by now, 2020 isn't any other year.
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The mere fact that Wheeler will even take the mound Saturday at Citizens Bank Park and stare down the Miami Marlins in the second game of the season can be attributed to several other, far more consequential data points. The relevant statistics, disseminated Friday by Major League Baseball and the Players Association:
--0.3%, the rate of positive tests for COVID-19 among 32,640 samples collected since the beginning of intake screening on June 27.
--0.1%, the rate of positive tests among 28,888 samples collected since the end of intake screening.
--0.05%, the rate of positive tests among more than 10,000 samples collected in each of the last two weeks.
"They have a safe environment here, I feel like," Wheeler said Friday. "Our training staff, MLB, the union, everybody put together a good protocol. I feel safe."
Three weeks ago, Wheeler had doubts. Most players did. But Wheeler had reason for heightened caution: His wife, Dominique, was 8½ months pregnant.
The Wheelers’ baby boy, Wesley, arrived Monday night. He weighed in at 7 pounds, 12 ounces, according to the proud new father, and his timing couldn’t have been better, beating a Saturday due date by five days and allowing Wheeler to make his Phillies debut right on schedule.
"I was stressing about that a little bit, but it came a little early," the right-hander said. "He was a good sport."
It took more than Wesley's cooperation to get Wheeler out there, though.
Upon arriving for training camp, Wheeler made no promises. He pledged to throw his bullpen sessions, lift his weights, and get himself ready for the season, all the while asking himself the same daily questions: “Is it safe? Is it OK?”
That hasn’t changed. As much as he didn’t want to risk exposing Dominique to COVID-19, he doesn’t want to bring anything home to Wesley, either.
But after an initial hiccup with the timeliness of processing some results from the intake screening, MLB’s testing program went about as well as could have been expected during training camp. It could all go haywire now that teams have started traveling, often by plane, but the decline in positive tests seems to confirm that players are adhering to the 101 pages of protocols.
"I'm not really surprised," Wheeler said. "Everybody here is grown and responsible. The guys in the locker room are doing their part. Nobody wants to catch this thing. Nobody wants to miss time. It's only 60 games, so everybody wants to make those count. People recognize that certain guys might have people at risk, so they are wearing their mask around like they should. That's all I can really ask for."
For now, then, Wheeler’s biggest concern can be pitching.
In five seasons with the New York Mets, Wheeler neither reached 200 innings nor made an All-Star team. But the Phillies signed him for five years and $118 million because of his combination of elite stuff and upside. Unlike most free agents, who get big money based on past performance, the 30-year-old might not have reached his peak.
“We believe he’s going to make jumps even better than he has been,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s got four pitches that are effective. He’s got that velo in the tank when he needs it. We’re excited about what he’s going to bring us.”
Wheeler said his anticipation level for his Phillies debut “feels about normal.” There’s no denying, though, that expectations will be higher now, just as they were when Bryce Harper, Cliff Lee, Jim Thome, and Jake Arrieta signed big-money free-agent deals here.
The last two seasons have been Wheeler’s best. Among the 36 pitchers who made a total of at least 60 starts, he ranked 13th in ERA (3.65), 18th in strikeout rate (23.8%), and 12th in innings pitched (377⅔).
But he also struggled at the outset of each season. Last year, he had a 4.68 ERA through 12 starts, roughly the total that he will make in this 60-game sprint. Through 12 starts in 2018, he had a 4.98 ERA.
"That's why I threw so much during the downtime -- to try to get in here and hit the ground running," Wheeler said. "I start the season slow, but that's why I threw so much, just so when I did get here I'd be crisp and sharp and hopefully in that second-half mentality."
Indeed, Wheeler spent most of the quarantine at home in Georgia, where, he said, he threw three live batting practice sessions per week and built his arm strength to about 80 pitches per outing.
It must help, too, to know that the conditions are safe enough for him to actually pitch.
"Obviously it's been a little different for me, going into the season with having the baby and everything else that's going on in the world," Wheeler said. "And then coming to a new team and making my debut here is definitely different. Different times.
“But I feel ready, I feel healthy, I feel in tune. I should be good.”