Zack Wheeler's journey and career pay homage to former Phillies ace Cliff Lee

Going into his fifth year as a Phillie, Zack Wheeler has been a fan favorite and a horse for the rotation. He also has been eerily similar to one of the Phillies' Four Aces of the 2010s.
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies / Jonathan Ernst/GettyImages
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Throughout the course of Philadelphia Phillies history, some masterful pitchers have donned the red pinstripes, ranging from Robin Roberts in the 1940s all the way to modern-day pitchers such as Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay.

Some incredible pitchers have spent their whole careers or only just a few short years making a major impact in Philadelphia. When you look back over the last 15 years, however, two pitchers have shared a lot in common, both in vibes and performance.

Cliff Lee and Zack Wheeler have so many similarities, it's hard not to compare the two Phillies aces.

In July 2009, in the midst of a playoff push and World Series run, the Phillies made a splash move, acquiring the previous season's AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee from the then Cleveland Indians. The lefty would go on to pair with Phillies ace Cole Hamels to take the team to the World Series for the second time in two seasons.

Despite coming up short, Lee did his part, throwing 40 1/3 innings with a 1.56 ERA and posting a 4-0 record throughout the 2009 postseason.

After the 2009 season, the then 31-year-old was traded to the Seattle Mariners for a package of minor leaguers in what was a replenishment of prospects after the big move to acquire Roy Halladay. While it seemed like Lee, who was in the final year of his contract, was getting ready to test free agency, the Phillies did all they could to recoup the value from him.

Little did they know that Lee would rejoin the team the next offseason, just 364 days after he was dealt, and continue a wonderful Phillies career.

Only six seasons later, the Phillies acquired a new starting pitcher with a similar demeanor. Zack Wheeler has not only lived up to expectations but has blown right through them.

The big righty has been a staple in the Phillies rotation since signing him as a free agent during the 2019 offseason. The then 30-year-old was thrust into a rotation with a different life-long Phillies starter, Aaron Nola.

During his time with the Phillies, Wheeler has been magnificent, leading the team through, you guessed it, back-to-back deep playoff runs by taking the ball when it is his turn and carrying the load on his back. The spotlight is never too big, and his long outings and impressive strikeout numbers put him near the top of Cy Young voting every year.

Diving deeper into comparisons between the two aces, there are far more similarities than just being really, really good pitchers.

Lee and Wheeler: History before Philadelphia

One thing is obvious when analyzing Lee and Wheeler: they throw with different arms. The main difference between the two is the side of delivery, Lee being the lefty and Wheeler throwing from the right side. Past that, many things are alike.

The former Cy Young winner, Lee, stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at a little over 200 pounds. Wheeler is just one inch taller and about five to 10 pounds lighter. Both are from Southern states (Arkansas for Lee and Georgia for Wheeler) and were originally drafted out of high school. While Lee chose to return to school (twice), Wheeler entered the New York Mets system, and the rest was history.

Before each pitcher was signed by the Phillies in free agency, there were some doubts for them both. Lee was coming off three outstanding years, one where he won the AL Cy Young Award. The issue was would that be sustainable long-term? He struggled mightily with his control at the beginning of his career, having seasons where he pushed four walks per nine innings.

Wheeler was doubted for other reasons. He had a history of injury with his throwing arm, before and after having Tommy John surgery in 2015, and not pitching in the majors for all of the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. Would Wheeler's glimpses of excellence and potential come to fruition in a new spot?

The Phillies decided in both cases that the talent was too much to pass on, inking Cliff Lee to a five-year, $120 million deal during the 2010 offseason. Zack Wheeler signed almost the same deal in the 2019 offseason, agreeing to a five-year, $118 million contract.

Including the 2009 season, Lee pitched in Philadelphia for his ages 30 to 35 seasons, excluding age 31 when he bounced between Seattle and Texas. Wheeler joined the Phillies as a 30-year-old and is entering his age 34 season, with a contract extension looming.