Tracing the evolution of Phillies ace Zack Wheeler from good to great to the best

The Phillies hit the jackpot when Zack Wheeler signed in free agency, but he has been better than anyone could have imagined.
Philadelphia Phillies ace Zack Wheeler
Philadelphia Phillies ace Zack Wheeler / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

Philadelphia Phillies' Zack Wheeler ended his Sunday afternoon start against the Miami Marlins with a 2.53 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP. He has the best odds of winning the NL Cy Young Award, according to and multiple betting sites, and he is constantly discussed as one of the best arms in the game.

The craziest part is that Wheeler didn’t even have his best stuff in the start against the Marlins. Heading into that game, in which he surrendered six runs over four innings, Wheeler had a 1.87 ERA, a .167 batting average against, and 63 strikeouts over 49 1/3 innings. Despite that, he still went out there and gave the team a chance to win, even though they ended up losing in extra innings.

It was shocking to see the Marlins tee off on Wheeler. Not just because of how he has started the year but because that’s what we’ve all come to expect from him now. The ace who goes out to the mound every five days, and no matter what, spins a stellar start and gives his team the absolute best chance to win every game.

It’s what the "best pitcher in baseball" does. And it’s pretty clear right now that Wheeler holds that crown. But he wasn’t always this player.

Tracing the evolution of Phillies ace Zack Wheeler from good to great to the best

Wheeler was drafted sixth overall in 2009 by the San Francisco Giants. In 2011, he was part of the deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Giants and landed Wheeler in New York with the Mets. Two years later, he made his debut on June 18, 2013, at 23 years old. He made 17 starts that year, ending the season with a 3.42 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 7.6 K/9 and a 1.36 WHIP.

The next year, Wheeler had a 3.52 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 32 starts over 185 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, it led to the then-24-year-old having Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2015. He returned from the injury but something seemed off with the big right-hander.

Over the next three years, he started 77 games to the tune of a less-than-stellar, 3.94 ERA before hitting free agency. The Mets, at the time, had a ton of pitching at their disposal and thought Wheeler was the expendable one.

But they, along with everyone else, didn’t see this version of Zack Wheeler coming.

The Phillies took a chance on the 29-year-old free agent, and it may be the best free agent signing in the history of the sport.

During his time donning the red pinstripes, Wheeler has made 110 starts. He has registered a 3.02 ERA, 2.89 FIP, 1.05 WHIP, 740 strikeouts and a .627 winning percentage. In 2021, when he came in second in Cy Young voting, he finished the year with a 2.78 ERA and 1.01 WHIP and led the league in innings (213 1/3), strikeouts (247) and complete games (three).

Those numbers are, dare we say, Roy Halladay-esque. In fact, Wheeler’s best Halladay impression came on the day in which the Phillies honored and retired Doc Halladay’s number. Wheeler made the start against the Mets and spun an absolute gem. In classic Doc fashion, Wheeler threw a complete game shutout, going nine innings, allowing just two hits and one walk while striking out 11.

It was at this time that the baseball world was put on notice that Wheeler had the stuff and capability to be on top of the mountain as the best pitcher in baseball.

Wheeler elevates his game even more in the postseason, continues into 2024

Maybe the most value that Wheeler has provided is with his playoff performances. The postseason evaded the Phillies for a long time from 2012 through 2021, but when they finally broke through, Wheeler was the one who carried them on the mound.

In 10 playoff starts and one relief appearance, Wheeler has been dominant. He has a career playoff ERA of 2.42 and a WHIP of 0.73, the lowest in MLB postseason history, narrowly edging out Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Time and time again, he has come up big in the biggest moments, never shying away from the bright lights and delivering his best stuff.

Everyone is noticing his resurgence as the ace of all aces, and the player with the best view, catcher J.T. Realmuto had high praise earlier this month, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia's Corey Seidman.

"He always had plus stuff, he's just more of a pitcher now than he was in the past," Realmuto said, per Seidman. "He used to be more of a thrower and just kinda challenge you in the middle of the zone, came at you with two or three pitches.

"Now he's got five or six pitches that he uses on both sides of the plate. He can toy with the hitters more than he used to, kinda mess with their heads, get them looking for one thing and throw something else."

Aaron Nola, who started six opening days in a row for the Phillies, suggested that Wheeler should be the Opening Day starter in 2024, saying, “Wheels should take it, he’s earned it, man.”

The whole team is behind Wheeler, and he has the stuff to take them far. In 2024, through nine starts, he has a 2.53 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP, and that includes the small blip from his last start against the Marlins. When he is on the mound, the Phillies have the confidence and feel they have the best chance to win. At the end of the day, that’s the starting pitcher's job, and Wheeler has proven to be the best at that.

With Wheeler signing his three-year extension this past offseason, the Phillies have locked up their ace through 2027. It’s nice to know that the best pitcher in baseball will call Philadelphia home for a long time.