Zack Wheeler is a power pitcher who is known for his ability to rack up strikeouts. In his strong second half of 2019, Wheeler struck out a notch over 20 percent of batters he faced over that second half. That number helped him secure a 5 year, $115M contract with the Phillies in December.
Wheeler’s first season in Philadelphia has been nothing short of spectacular. Prior to Monday’s start against his former team the Mets, Wheeler is 4-0 in seven starts with a 2.20 ERA. That ERA is good for seventh best in the majors and is less than a full run short of his 3.68 career average.
But, he hasn’t racked up the eye popping strikeout numbers he has previously in his career. His strikeout rate of 16.5% is the lowest of his career and a large drop from 2019’s 23.5%. So, how is Wheeler having the best season of his career despite having a career low in strikeouts?
Limiting Hard Contact
The most dramatic change about Wheeler from his previous seasons to this one has been his ability to limit hard contact. Wheeler is in the top 20% of all Major League pitchers in exit velocity allowed and the top 7% of barrel percentage.
What those numbers mean is that opposing batters have struggled to square up Wheeler’s pitches and make good contact. And when they do, those hits are going for outs. This is allowing Wheeler to pitch deep into games because he is keeping his pitch count down and not relying on just strikeouts to get outs.
It’s not just based on luck either. His BABIP (batting average of balls in play) is .278, showing that he hasn’t been unusually fortunate with where balls are landing. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 3.23 also isn’t unusual, meaning his defense hasn’t been a tremendous help or a big hindrance.
If limiting hard contact is the first major factor contributing to Wheeler’s success, his double plays induced is a very close second. Wheeler has induced 9 double plays in just 7 starts. To put that in perspective, his career high is 14 in 2018. He made 18 starts that year and pitched 182 ⅓ innings. Wheeler is five away from tying that career high and has thrown just 45 innings!
Double plays and strikeouts are similar in the sense that they can both kill rallies and help a pitcher escape danger. Wheeler is forcing opposing batters to put the ball in play where he wants them to, thus allowing him to get out of trouble without punching hitters out.
Limiting Walks and Home Runs
Wheeler has always been somewhat consistent in limiting home runs, at least for a power pitcher. His career high HR/9 came in 2017, which was the worst season of his career. That year he allowed 15 home runs in 86 ⅓ innings and had a 5.21 ERA. This year he has been especially excellent in limiting the long ball, allowing just 2 through 45 innings.
However, one thing that plagued Wheeler, especially early in his career, was walks. After that rough 2017 season, Wheeler was able to cut his BB/9 from 4.17 to 2.71 in 2018. That number has been consistently falling since, culminating in a minuscule 1.80 in 2020. Limiting free passes is yet another factor in having success without high strikeout numbers.
Pitching with a lead is much easier than pitching from behind. Pitchers are able to go right at hitters and not have to worry too much about making a mistake when they have a lead. They can throw strikes knowing that opposing hitters feel pressured to make something happen.
Zack Wheeler has been a huge benefactor of the Phillies offense this year. Wheeler is second in the majors in run support, with 37 runs in 45 innings, good for a 7.40 average. This is a huge reason why Wheeler is still undefeated on the year and why he has been able to have success.
Is it sustainable?
Wheeler has been a poster child of inconsistency for the better part of his career. Injuries and bad performances plagued him throughout his career with the Mets. That is why some fans may have given pause when it was announced the Phillies signed him to such a large contract.
However, the numbers suggest, at least for this year, this new Zack Wheeler is sustainable. The double play rate most likely isn’t, yes, but the overall performance should be. Wheeler has taken huge steps to learn how to pitch with the great stuff he has and has been able to have tremendous success. The strikeouts will come. Wheeler’s stuff is simply too good for his strikeouts to stay this low.
But, his performance without them has him on pace for the lowest ERA of his career and being a part of the Cy Young conversation at season’s end. If Wheeler is able to stay healthy and continue to pitch like this, it would seem the Phillies hopes of a formidable 1-2 punch with Wheeler and Aaron Nola have come true.