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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Lee and Wheeler: Mentality and pitching style

Watching these two athletes pitch, their demeanors are almost identical. In the biggest of moments or the smallest, their reactions, mechanics, game plan, and focus stay the same. There is and was never too big of a moment for either of them.

You couldn't take the ball from Lee's hand. In a different era of baseball where starting pitchers went deeper into games, Lee pitched 14 complete games in the 129 he started for the Phillies between the regular and postseason and never looked happy to be pulled. Not once.

Wheeler has collected the fourth most innings pitched since 2020, trailing only two Cy Young winners in Sandy Alcantara and Gerrit Cole, as well as his teammate Aaron Nola. Not bad for a guy who was labeled "injury-prone" and missed two complete seasons just three years prior.

Finally, while there are differences in their pitch repertoires, Lee and Wheeler's mindsets are the same: command the ball and keep hitters guessing. Both throw a lively fastball — Wheeler's clocking a few mph faster — an above-average curveball, and a change-of-pace cutter to keep the opposition off balance.

While Lee's change-up was a go-to strikeout pitch for him, Wheeler opts for a hard slider, often coming in faster than 90 mph. Regardless of arsenal differences, the plan is the same — attack the zone, limit walks, and throw strikes.

Lee and Wheeler: Phillies career and legacy

The most important part of how a career is viewed, especially in Philadelphia, is the performance on the field. Neither Lee nor Wheeler have any issue with that.

Over his four-and-a-half-year career with the Phillies, Lee was outstanding, pitching to a 2.94 ERA and striking out over 800 hitters through 827 innings. The Arkansas native managed to cut his BB/9 rate in half from 2.6 to 1.3 while also jumping his K/9 rate by over two strikeouts, up to 8.8 per nine.

Wheeler, a childhood Braves fan, has figured out a way to pitch against his team's rivals, collecting a 3.06 ERA over 101 games with a career-low of 2.78 in 2021, the year he finished second in NL Cy Young voting. Wheeler's numbers also elevated when arriving in Philly, posting a 1.9 BB/9 rate and almost 10 strikeouts per nine.

The two have even more similarities when you break down their numbers after signing their free agent deals.

Stat

Cliff Lee

Zack Wheeler

Years

2011-14

2020-23

G

106

101

W-L

41-30

43-25

ERA

2.89

3.06

ERA+

133

137

WHIP

1.08

1.06

FIP

2.86

2.90

SO/9

8.9

9.7

BB/9

1.4

1.9

fWAR

19.6

19.3

The parallels between Lee, one of the best starters of the early 2000s, and Wheeler, who has become one of the best starters of the early 2020s are unmatched. Two outstanding men who carried themself the right way, went all out for the Phillies, and of course, were excellent at their craft.

Still, the most insane part about it all is that the Phillies were able to acquire them both. Now, both pitchers will live forever in Phillies history, although Wheeler still has time to attain the one achievement that eluded Lee: a World Series ring.