Phillies

A deep dive on Zack Wheeler's true chances of winning NL Cy Young

Phillies

If ever you needed an example of how quickly wins can change the tone of a fanbase, look at this last week for the Phillies.

On the morning of Sunday, August 1, the Phillies prepared for their series finale in Pittsburgh after losing the first two games to a Pirates team 25 games under .500.

Trade deadline acquisition Kyle Gibson started that game and got the win in his debut, the Phils scored 15 runs and they haven't stopped winning since.

A week ago, the conversations were about bad defense, no rotation depth, a shaky bullpen and a 10th straight non-playoff season.

Now? Folks are wondering if the Phillies could have the National League's MVP and Cy Young.

Bryce Harper, the majors' second-half leader in OPS, is making a push for MVP. 

And Zack Wheeler is now the frontrunner to win the NL Cy Young award.

Wheeler, who pitched a two-hit shutout to beat the Mets Sunday, leads the majors in innings (156), strikeouts (181), complete games (3) and shutouts (2). 

He has a 2.42 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. If you care about Wins Above Replacement, Wheeler ranks second in the majors to Shohei Ohtani, per Baseball-Reference's metric. And that's not second among pitchers, that's second among all major-leaguers.

The Phillies have 50 games left and Wheeler projects to start 10 of them. As of this moment, it's his award to lose. He is now listed as the NL Cy Young favorite at PointsBet with +190 odds (a $10 bet would pay out $19).

The edge Wheeler has, however, is not insurmountable. Walker Buehler is right there with him. Buehler is 12-2 with an NL-best 2.13 ERA. He has pitched 8⅓ fewer innings than Wheeler and has 29 fewer strikeouts. Buehler has pitched at least six innings in 22 of his 23 starts. He has allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of 23. He has been as consistently excellent as Wheeler, he just hasn't gone as deep into games as frequently.

 

There's distance between Wheeler and Buehler and the other contenders. 

Kevin Gausman (2.31 ERA) trails Wheeler by nearly 25 innings and has a 6.11 ERA out of the All-Star break. 

Jacob deGrom is out with a forearm injury and has pitched 63 fewer innings than Wheeler. 

The Brewers' top three starters are having excellent years. Brandon Woodruff has a 2.23 ERA, Freddy Peralta has a 2.21 and Corbin Burnes a 2.39. All three have huge strikeout numbers. But Peralta and Burnes trail Wheeler by more than 40 innings and Woodruff trails him by 20.

Wheeler's workload is impossible to ignore in this race.

"I put his numbers against anyone's," manager Joe Girardi said after Sunday's win, the Phillies' eighth in a row. "You look at what he's done for this club, the innings that he's logged, how dominant he has been. I think he is as much in the picture as anybody else."

Wheeler had a very good season in 2020 but has taken things to a different level this year. His fastball has averaged 97 mph in every inning from the first through the ninth. He had career-best velocity on Sunday against his former team, needing just four innings to throw the most 99+ mph fastballs he’s ever thrown in a game.

Wheeler signed with the Phillies two winters ago for $118 million over five years, an average annual value of $23.6 million. Players made 37% of their salaries in 2020 when the season was reduced to 60 games because of the pandemic, so he made $8.73 million.

To date, he’s made about $26 million as a Phillie. According to Fangraphs, which has a metric that converts a player’s WAR to a dollar scale based on what he would make in free agency, Wheeler has been worth $60.8 million here.

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