Wheel’s Up: How Zack Wheeler Became the Phillies’ Ace

Jun 10, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) pitches during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 10, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) pitches during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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Zack Wheeler is having himself a season.

In fact, he’s transformed into one of the best starters the Philadelphia Phillies have had in years. When you’re getting compared to Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, you know you’re doing something right.

Wheeler’s 2.29 ERA is the best on the Phillies and ranks 12th among MLB pitchers. He’s ranked 11th in WHIP, one of only 15 pitchers in the league with a WHIP under 1.00.

But it’s his calculated attack on the strike zone that has been so incredible to see this season. FanGraphs puts his Zone % (Pitches in the strike zone / Total pitches) at 44.9%, 20th overall among MLB pitchers; his Z-Swing % (Swings at pitches inside the zone / pitches inside the zone) is even better, 71.3%, 18th overall.

Wheeler leads the National League in strikeouts and has the 4th-most strikeouts in MLB overall, trailing Yankees ace Gerrit Cole by a single K. He’s struck out 112 batters in 90 1/3 innings so far this season, on pace to set a new career-high by a substantial amount; his previous single-season strikeout record was 195 over 195 1/3 innings in 2019.

Wheeler was no slouch in the shortened 2020 season, either. Over eleven starts, he posted a then-career-best 2.29 ERA, also the best in Philadelphia’s rotation.

Zack Wheeler’s scoreless outing yesterday stumped the Braves.

In Thursday’s walk-off win over the Braves, Wheeler threw eight scoreless innings; 79 of his 105 pitches were strikes, he struck out twelve and walked none. It was his 13th career double-digit strikeout game.

But the truly amazing stat is that four of those double-digit strikeout games have been in his last five starts. Over those five starts, he has a 1.47 ERA and 56 strikeouts over 36 2/3 innings. In his seven starts dating back to May 6, he’s only allowed eight runs in 51 2/3 innings.

"“Wheeler pitched fantastic. He’s a big reason that we had a chance to win that game.” – Phillies manager Joe Girardi"

Like his new teammate Luke Williams, Wheeler has been making history this week. According to Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first Phillies pitcher to pitch two scoreless, double-digit strikeout games without allowing a walk since 1891.

"“His stuff is really, really good. I don’t know why he’s not being mentioned way more. He deserves to get more mention by the league, by everybody because his stuff is really, really good.” – Jean Segura"

Zack Wheeler has been phenomenal, but the Phillies need more.

Despite Wheeler’s stellar season thus far, the Phillies are only 7-6 in his starts, including two 1-run losses. He has six no-decisions and only four wins; in each of those six no-decisions, he’s thrown at least five innings and struck out at least six batters. Three of Wheeler’s double-digit strikeout games have resulted in no-decisions for him.

Yesterday’s game was no different, with the Phillies clinging to a 1-0 lead into the 9th. But the positive spin on this situation is that Wheeler has entered an elite club of aces who rarely get run support. He can commiserate with Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale.

The Phillies are 30-31 overall and only overtook the Braves for second place in the NL East this week. Individually, he’s experiencing great success, but baseball is a team game. As the trade deadline nears, let’s hope his teammates and the front office don’t waste his strong season.

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