In certain circles of the internet that have overflowed into real life, there is fierce debate over whether my home exists. I am a lifelong resident of Central Jersey: the abdomen of the Garden State located between Interstates 78 and 195. Too often, I must defend the legitimacy of my homeland against philistines who only recognize North Jersey and South Jersey. (Fortunately, these arguments can be won with a nice, loud “C’mon!”)
That Central Jersey is real becomes most apparent when discussing sports. I-195 is the nominal line dividing the New York and Philadelphia markets, but it’s not a clean cut. Inexplicably, Philly fans and New York fans have bled over onto the wrongs sides of the divider, leading to fearsome clashes. (c’mon. C’mon! C’MON!!!!!) Truly, Central Jersey is the Debatable Lands of the American sports realm.
What this means is that no one around me is happy about Zack Wheeler. Mets fans didn’t want to lose him to a division rival. Phillies fans think he’s a waste of money. Yankees fans... don’t really care honestly, as long as they sign Gerrit Cole.
If you just look at the back-of-the-baseball-card stats, Wheeler’s contract does indeed look like an overpay. Five years, $118 million is a lot of money for 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA. With 195 strikeouts and 196 hits in 195 1⁄3 innings, he was about as average as possible last season. Of course, we know that you need to go beyond the box score (get it?) to find the true measure of a pitcher, especially when you’re projecting future performance.
The first thing that stands out about Wheeler is his elite velocity. The four-seamer averages 96.8 mph— fourth best in baseball by a starting pitcher behind Noah Syndergaard (97.8), Cole (97.2), and Jacob deGrom (96.9). He generates a 10.8 percent swinging strike rate and 22.8 percent whiffs per swing on the heater, both of which are above average.
Against left-handed hitters, the four-seamer becomes an even better weapon. Its swinging strike rate jumps to 13.7 percent, making it the seventh best four-seamer in baseball used by a righty starter against lefty batters. The pitchers ahead of him are Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer— those kind of guys.
With a dominant heater, you would expect Wheeler to thrive against opposite-side batters, but this hasn’t been true. He allowed a .328 wOBA vs. lefties compared to a .269 wOBA vs. righties. The reason is evident in his pitch usage:
He used his best pitch less than ever against lefties in 2019, throwing the sinker much more. This runs contrary to what we’ve learned about the sinker and its general suckiness. True to form, opponents obliterated the sinker last season:
Wheeler vs. Left-Handed Hitters
It’s not so easy to just say, “ditch the sinker and throw everything else more.” With increased reliance, the other pitches might not be as effective. However, we’re not talking about a two or three-pitch hurler here. He’s got six different pitch types at his disposal, including one of the hardest fastballs in the game. He should be able to find plenty of ways to attack lefties without using his blatantly worst pitch.
The Cole Comp
Wheeler has ace stuff. That’s what the Phillies purchased, not his heretofore middling results. In fact, according to Baseball Savant, the pitcher his velocity and movement most closely resembles is Gerrit Cole.
It’s a bit much to expect Wheeler to suddenly mirror one of the top five pitchers in baseball, but not that long ago, Cole also produced merely average results. In 2017, his last year with the Pirates, he posted 196 strikeouts and 199 hits in 203 innings with a 100 ERA+. That’s nearly a perfect match for Wheeler’s 2019. The next year, he started using his sinker less and his slider more, and the rest is history.
Ditching the sinker isn’t the only change Cole made with the Astros. It’s naive to think that Wheeler could become an immediate Cy Young contender, but with his stuff it’s not impossible, either.
The biggest takeaway is that he ought to be better than he has been. With a few adjustments, could his future performance could be far more valuable than his contract? C’mon!
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.