Phillies

Zack Wheeler outpitching all the big-money starting pitchers from last winter

Phillies

The Phillies' most consistent starting pitcher one month into the two-month season is on the mound tonight at Citizens Bank Park against the Braves.

Zack Wheeler, who held Atlanta to two runs over seven innings with eight K's last weekend, is 3-0 with a 2.76 ERA and has walked just six batters. Of the 33 innings Wheeler has pitched, 27 have been scoreless.

Wheeler and Aaron Nola are the only starting pitchers in the National League to complete at least seven innings three times. And that's despite the Phillies having played at least four fewer games than every team in the NL West, three in the NL Central and one in their own division.

Wheeler has never opened a season in this kind of groove. His ERA in his first five starts of a season from 2013-19 was 4.58 compared to this year's 2.76.

The Phillies have enjoyed these early returns from Wheeler, who signed a five-year, $118 million contract in December. They have to be especially pleased given the developments with the other high-priced starting pitchers who were free agents over the winter.

While Wheeler is off to a terrific start, Stephen Strasburg (7 years, $245M) is out for the season after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery. It is his 11th stint on the injured list in 11 seasons. He pitched five innings for the Nationals this season and allowed six runs. His absence has a lot to do with Washington's surprising 5.43 ERA from its starting pitchers.

 

Gerrit Cole (9 years, $324 million) has been taken deep in every start and allowed the most home runs in the majors. It hasn't just been the small dimensions of Yankee Stadium either — 6 of 10 have come on the road. Cole will correct it and should thrive in New York but the solo homers can cancel out some of the difficulty of stringing together hits against him. 

Madison Bumgarner (5 years, $85M) was 0-3 with a 9.35 ERA in four starts before going on the injured list with a mid-back strain. His fastball velocity was down almost four full miles per hour, from 91.4 to 87.8. That five-year deal already has the makings of a disaster.

Bumgarner is less than a year older than Wheeler but is significantly older in baseball years. The three-time champ with the Giants has thrown nearly 2,000 innings in his major-league career compared to Wheeler's 782. The Bumgarner and Strasburg deals were more about past performance; the Wheeler deal was more about his ceiling.

The expectation is that Strasburg will be ready to go in 2021, but there is a decent chance that he'll never again be as healthy as he was in 2019, when he eclipsed 30 starts for only the second time. Strasburg led the NL in innings pitched in 2019 and had a historic postseason run (5-0, 1.98 ERA). He had his best year when it mattered most, and it didn't just benefit him, it benefited his team with a World Series.

In the four years preceding 2019, Strasburg averaged 145 innings. Is it more likely that he's closer to that average throughout the bulk of his seven-year deal, or closer to the 209 frames he threw a season ago?

With Wheeler, the best may still be yet to come. His last start was his most electric of the five. He had a fastball ranging from 96 to 99 and two different breaking balls that missed bats. The contact he's allowed has, for the most part, been the kind of contact he's wanted, with 53 of 99 balls in play on the ground.

Wheeler lines up to make six more starts this season. Barring schedule changes, they will be starts against the Braves, Nationals, Mets, Marlins, Mets, Nationals and Rays, in that order.