When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Zack Wheeler to a 5-year deal during the Winter Meetings in 2019 they expected to get a good pitcher. Wheeler has been better than good in the first four years of his contract. He has been the bona fide ace of the rotation and has paired well with Aaron Nola during his time in Philadelphia. The right hander's 2023 season has been no different.
Despite an ERA just north of 3.50, Wheeler has been a dominant pitcher for most of the season. Prior to the All-Star break, the ace's ERA was 4.05, but since then his ERA has been 2.68. While ERA is a decent indicator to judge a pitcher, it does not factor in bad luck or poor defense. Wheeler's advanced metrics suggest that he has pitched better than his ERA shows.
Wheeler has pitched so well since the All-Star break that Thomas Harrigan of MLB.com wrote that the Phillies' ace could be a dark-horse Cy Young candidate if he finishes the season strong. The National League has been inundated with solid pitching this season. Atlanta Braves' ace Spencer Strider has been striking out opposing batters with ease. Arizona Diamondbacks right hander Zac Gallen has looked great all year. Two lefties— San Diego Padres' Blake Snell and Chicago Cubs' Justin Steele— have sub-3.00 ERAs. The Cy Young race in the National League is tight.
How does Wheeler factor into the race? Looking at basic numbers, the Phillies' right hander has a similar ERA to Strider, has less wins than all the above-mentioned pitchers, and has only struck out more batters than one pitcher on the previously named list. However, as Harrigan points out, Wheeler has impressed beyond the surface-level stats.
Harrigan points out that according to FanGraphs, Wheeler has the highest fWAR in baseball— 0.6 fWAR ahead of Strider. Wheeler is also fourth in baseball in FIP (3.01) which takes out factors that a pitcher cannot control. In terms of innings pitched among pitchers in the CY Young race, Wheeler is second behind Strider. He is also second in WHIP (1.08) behind Strider, but he is first in K/BB (5.83) and third in K/9 (10.0).
While Wheeler is certainly not the leading candidate for the NL Cy Young Award at this point, his recent pitching has thrown him into the mix with some of the leading names. It would take a dominant stretch for Wheeler and some stumbling from some of the other candidates for the Phillies' ace to win the award. Who knows what each of these pitcher's numbers will be come season's end. It is also up to the voters to decide which stats are most important in rewarding a pitcher's dominance over the course of a season. Whether Wheeler can defy the odds and win the award or not, there is no disputing his overall value to this Phillies team.