When the Phillies inked starting pitcher Zack Wheeler to a 5-year, $118M pact in 2019, it quickly became apparent that they envisioned him as a front-end starter. This was a fairly lofty goal for the then-29-year-old hurler that had never amassed more than 12 wins in a single season. Not only had Wheeler not compiled a ton of wins, but he had also never pitched 200 or more innings in a single season.
Still, the Phillies were highly impressed with his explosive pitching arsenal and figured his best days were ahead of him at the time of his signing.
“This is a power guy with four pitches where I think he’s just starting to reach his potential,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said shortly after the signing. “I think there is more in the tank there. I think this guy can be more dominant than he’s been, and we’re looking forward to seeing the top of our rotation.”
Wheeler certainly had tantalizing stuff when he was acquired. His fastball was lightning quick, frequently registering in the upper 90s. His slider and curveball carried a lot of bend. Seemingly possessing all he needed to succeed, his early-career results left a bit to be desired.
Rounding out the back end of a star-studded Mets rotation, Wheeler put up rather pedestrian numbers during his time in New York. In five years with the Mets, across 126 starts, Wheeler compiled a 44-38 record and posted a 3.77 ERA.
He struggled with putting batters away at times, seeming to lack a preferred strikeout pitch. Wheeler also hardly used the top of the strike zone, which caused him to leave pitches out over the middle of the plate and get in trouble.
Since arriving in Philly, though, Wheeler seems to have flipped a switch.
Wheeler flashed his ace potential in a shortened 2020 season, his first with Philly. In 11 starts, the hard-throwing righty posted a career-low 2.92 ERA and allowed just three home runs on the year. His decision-making was much better and could be attributed to the game management of Phillies catcher J.T Realmuto.
“It definitely helps,” Wheeler said in May when discussing playing with Realmuto. “I’ve had decent catchers, bad catchers, and good catchers. There’s nothing like having a good catcher back there.”
Wheeler looked much more confident on the mound for Philly than he did the Mets. His pace improved and he hesitated less, which is perhaps another side effect of the game script Realmuto helps establish.
“Somebody who can not just call a game but understand you and what your strengths are,” Wheeler continued. “Somebody that isn’t just calling to the scouting report but to your strengths and the scouting report.”
The chemistry between the two talents have done wonders this year. After a stellar inaugural campaign with Philly, Wheeler has been even more dominant so far in his second season with the team.
Wheeler, 31, currently leads the National League in strikeouts with 112 and his 2.29 ERA is top 15 in the majors. Through 13 starts, he has registered five 10+ strikeout games, four of which have come in his last five starts.
He has been molten lava hot to begin the year and his name belongs in the mix for the Cy Young award. One of the biggest differences from his time in New York, and even his first year with the Phillies, has been his reliance on his slider. Last year, his sinker was his second-most-thrown pitch. This year, his slider has been his second-most-thrown pitch, and he uses it to put batters away in two-strike counts.
This swap has vastly improved his game and is paving the way for what is shaping up to be a career year for him. In the second of a five-year contract, Wheeler is becoming the ace the Phillies envisioned when they acquired him.
He leads the team in just about every major pitching metric and is a large reason the team is still afloat in the competitive NL East. The Phillies organization and fans alike have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from Wheeler thus far and it isn’t hyperbolic to suggest that he is on pace to receive his first all-star nomination.
For now, the Phillies are hoping his early-season dominance is sustainable and that he is emerging into the ace they knew he could be.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire