When perusing the statistical leaderboard for starting pitchers this year, some familiar names stick out. Jacob deGrom, who continues to cement his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time, has been worth 3.2 fWAR—the highest mark among all starters—despite making just nine starts so far. Following a solid (if unspectacular) debut half-season for the Yankees in 2020, Gerrit Cole is right behind deGrom at 3.0 fWAR as he continues to anchor his team’s rotation through a difficult stretch.
Settling in at third place on the podium in 2021 is not one of last year’s Cy Young Award winners in Shane Bieber or Trevor Bauer. Nor is it a future first-ballot Hall of Famer like Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw. To the surprise of many, Zack Wheeler’s 2.7 fWAR currently ranks third among all arms in baseball. While he most certainly will not win the 2021 NL Cy Young Award (I’m told that deGrom’s name has actually already been engraved), the Phillies ace is making a strong case to be named a finalist.
When Wheeler left the Mets to join Philadelphia in the winter of 2019, the move was positively received by many outlets. Still, the term “overpaid” was thrown around frequently when describing Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million contract. The local media, the national media, and even his former general manager all insinuated that Wheeler, while talented, was not worth the contract the Phillies presented him. A friend of mine offered, “I would hardly call him a number 2 [in a rotation]” and proudly proclaimed that there would be, “no way in hell” he’d take Wheeler and his contract over James Paxton or Masahiro Tanaka.
All Wheeler has done since receiving that contract is slot himself in as one of the best starters in the league. The right-hander finished in a tie for 11th among qualified SPs with 2.0 fWAR in 2020 and has continued to transcend in 2021.
While Wheeler posted a 2.92 ERA and 3.22 FIP in ’20, fans were left wanting a little more despite some of his strong peripheral stats. He kept the ball in the yard, letting up a career-low 0.38 HR/9, but his strikeout numbers were lower than they had been previously. Wheeler struck out only 6.72 batters per nine innings, leading to a strikeout percentage that was 34th among 40 qualified starters.
His Statcast profile was pretty similar from 2019 to 2020, and Wheeler was even making batters chase at a high rate indicating that his tantalizing stuff was very much still a big part of his game. The noticeable decrease in strikeouts wasn’t a harrowing sign of things to come; rather, it was more or less a strategic decision by the pitcher.
In speaking with Matt Gelb of The Athletic during Spring Training a few months ago, Wheeler explained that he made a concerted effort to induce more contact in an attempt to get through games quicker and last longer:
“I was trying to get in and out of there last year. Obviously, the less pitches they see, the less you’re out there, the less damage you’re going to have. Get out of ahead of guys, try to finish them with three pitches or less. Strikeouts aren’t the biggest thing. I couldn’t care less about them, honestly. It’s a nice stat. But, at the end of the day, if you’re going seven innings and doing well, who cares?”
A quick glance at his pitch distribution chart last season would seem to validate Wheeler’s explanation:
He had always been solid at getting groundballs, but living down in the zone almost exclusively in 2020 aided Wheeler tremendously. He posted a GB% of 55.9%, a career-high and third among qualified starters behind Framber Valdez and Luis Castillo. His FB%, a league-low 19.0%, was a career-best. He tossed 71.0 innings—14th-highest in the league—and failed to get out of the sixth inning just three times in 11 starts (and in those three appearances, he went 5.2 frames).
His groundball percentage this season isn’t quite as high: through 12 starts, it sits at 48.2% which is good for 16th-best among qualified arms. He’s making up for it, though, by continuing to keep the ball out of the outfield seats (despite a reasonable uptick in his FB%) and inducing more whiffs than ever before. This, too, was by design. In the same interview with Gelb, Wheeler noted:
“[T]owards the end of last year, I was like, ‘You know, I’m going to start striking some people out,’” Wheeler said. “And I started doing that a little bit more. So I know I still got it.”
His SwStr% (14.6%) and CSW% (30.6%) are both career-highs and have helped him post a strikeout percentage (31.3%) that represents the 11th-highest mark in the league, ahead of prominent names like Lucas Giolito, Yu Darvish, and Castillo. His PutAway% (a stat which measures the rate of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout) of 24.5% is ahead of names like Cole, Bauer, and Brandon Woodruff. Wheeler’s Rolling K% chart further showcases the spike:
Wheeler’s ability to induce a groundout or reach back for a punchout seemingly at will, along with his ability to limit mistakes, has allowed him to transform into one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to face, as made evident by his Rolling expected wOBA chart (below the red line is better):
A former top prospect, Wheeler’s stats have finally caught up to his intriguing stuff and makeup. Including his fWAR value, Wheeler ranks high amongst his qualified peers in other important categories throughout the first two months of the 2021 campaign:
ERA: 2.51 (15th)
xERA: 2.55 (5th)
FIP: 2.58 (7th)
ERA-: 63 (15th)
FIP-: 61 (6th)
xwOBA: .255 (13th)
We’re extremely lucky to live in a time where we can turn on a game and watch immensely talented players like deGrom, Shohei Ohtani, and more put up some of the best performances that we’ll likely ever see. Wheeler doesn’t have the selling power nor the national recognition of those in that group, but don’t discount what he’s able to do on the mound each start. After years of the question “when?” following the right-hander, he’s definitely answered the call. Wheeler’s arrived, and he’s here to stay.