Phillies ace Zack Wheeler has quietly turned into one of the best pitchers in the MLB

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From Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB author

It wasn’t that long ago that one of the best pitchers in baseball couldn’t crack his team’s line-up on opening day.

In the final week of March 2018, as the New York Mets were preparing to travel north from Florida to start the game, they announced to 27-year-old Zack Wheeler that he had been removed from their list. Instead, he traveled to Triple-A Las Vegas to start his season.

He started a game in front of 7,000 fans in a ballpark that has existed since then converted into a second division football stadium. Wheeler was up and running again the following week after pitching trainer Dave Eiland tried to introduce a change of delivery after a successful implementation of a delivery change.

Since then, Wheeler has a 3.29 ERA in 85 starts, including six shutout innings against the mighty Dodgers on Wednesday.

Only five men have logged more innings than the 545 that the current Philadelphia Phillies ace has logged in that period: Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, teammate Aaron Nola, Jacob deGrom and Trevor Bauer. Wheeler was both durable and excellent. It’s been nine years since he was voted sixth overall in the 2009 draft, but the late bloomer has finally met, if not exceeded, expectations.

Wheeler entered another top class in the second half of 2019. Since then he has had a 2.59 ERA in 37 starts and has held out an average of almost 6 2/3 innings per start. In 2021 he held out even longer and prevented runs even better, with an ERA of 2.15 and almost seven innings per start. He was by far the top performer of the Phillies and kept them afloat when they might have sunk otherwise.

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During this final stretch of approximately 175 games, Wheeler was arguably the second best pitcher in all of baseball. The only one who is significantly better is his old rotation comrade deGrom.

“Other than deGrom and maybe Cole, I’m not sure who you’d rather have now,” said a National League evaluator. “He’s got the speed, he’s got the secondary, and now he can command them.”

How did Wheeler finally find his shape as he neared the age of 28? According to Eiland, he was so talented that he made some clear mistakes in the first decade of his professional career.

When the Giants moved him to sixth overall from a high school an hour outside of Atlanta in 2009, the Scouts adored him. San Francisco looked effortless speed out of one promising framework. He filled up and kept throwing hard, albeit wildly. But the teams weren’t always ready to wait for him to develop command. Wheeler was the Mets ‘return when the Giants traded against Carlos Beltran in 2011, and he was almost the Brewers’ return when the Mets traded against Carlos Gómez in 2015.

He used to put his arm all the way behind his back when he was born. This meant that the arm was often dragged behind him, following the movement of his lower body. And that meant he couldn’t consistently deliver pitches from the same release point. Once he shortened his arm movement, Eiland said, he was a different, more controlled thrower.

“It was a little long and a little lazy, but you could see it was in,” said Eiland. “Everyone’s probably just been waiting for it and waited for it and waited for it. He pitched well from time to time, but of course once he cleared that delivery he became a lot more consistent, and now you see what he is.” do – what he’s done for the past three years, actually. “

Once Wheeler was that other thrower, he could learn all the other things he’d been missing. He began to understand how to best arrange his pitches against the opponent. He concentrated better. “He sometimes admitted,” said Eiland, “he just lost focus for two or three throws at the same time during a game.”

Eiland compared him to Kansas City’s Danny Duffy, another pitcher he coached who also made about 100 major league starts before he peaked. But the royals stayed with Duffy and he paid them back. The Mets gave up on Wheeler when he reached the free agency and ignored his calls when he informed them of the Phillies’ $ 118 million five-year deal.

“The forecasts we had for Zack – both short and long term – did not quite match the market that he was able to enjoy,” said the now dismissed Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen later.

Wheeler reportedly had an even better deal on the table from the Chicago White Sox. And if anything, it looks like the Phillies are underpaid for him. Wheeler is the rare free agent who had not peaked when he hit the open market because of Tommy John’s surgery and injuries and the problems with his delivery.

“He’s just beginning to fulfill his potential,” said Phillies manager Joe Girardi the day the team announced the signing of Wheeler, and he was right.

“I think I still have a lot of room for improvement,” said Wheeler a week later at his opening press conference and agreed with him.

Wheeler just turned 31, and nothing about his performance suggests his 2021 is a fluke. He’s been doing well for a while, and this year he has beaten 118 and run only 22. According to his latest findings, the impending enforcement of foreign substances does not appear to threaten him.

It’s not complicated from one perspective: Wheeler is among the toughest throwers in the sport, and he combines top speed with a slider, a cutter, a curveball, a two-seam, and masters most of them most nights. Why shouldn’t he be successful? Scouts saw this a dozen years ago.

“The talent, it was all there,” said Eiland. “We just had to do a few things to make it come out consistently.”

Those things started at the end of Spring 2018 training. Wheeler’s improvement hasn’t stopped since, and this season he’s benefited from the data-driven teachings of new pitching coach Caleb Cotham. Cotham is half a century younger than Wheeler’s last pitching coach with the Mets, Phil Regan. In fact, Cotham and Wheeler were part of the same design class from 2009. He’s well versed with the modern teaching aids, Wheeler said he hopes to learn from his signature.

Anyway, Wheeler added a half a tick of speed to his fastball this year. That’s another way he’s like deGrom.

“When you’ve got a guy throwing 100 mph who can command the fastball like that,” said Steven Souza Jr. of the Dodgers after taking him on Wednesday night, “it gets tough anytime, especially late moves . “

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The wild thing about it, Wheeler said, was that he operated on less than his top grade material. “On days like this,” he said, “you just have to go out and try to do the best you can.”

Today that’s more than enough for him.

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. Most recently, he covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. He previously spent five years reporting on the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times. He previously reported on his alma mater, USC ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the suburbs of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.


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