Zack Wheeler confirmed Monday that he had a better offer on the table than the five-year, $118 million contract he ultimately signed with the Phillies. He wouldn’t say which club made that offer, but sources have indicated that the Chicago White Sox came in a little higher.
Geography played a big role in Wheeler’s decision to sign with the Phillies. His fiancée hails from North Jersey and she has family in South Jersey. He hails from the Atlanta area and liked the idea of staying in the National League East so he could visit that city three times a year, just like he did during his time with the New York Mets.
There was another big factor in Wheeler’s decision.
Score one for the Phillies’ analytics team.
“I think it’s definitely going to help me get to that next step,” Wheeler said at his introductory news conference at Citizens Bank Park.
Injuries and inconsistency have been significant hurdles throughout Wheeler’s career. But the hard-throwing right-hander has reached an age and a point in his career — he’s 29 and coming off two mostly healthy seasons — where he’s the popular choice among baseball people to be the next guy to put it all together and become a star.
Sort of like Gerrit Cole.
Cole was a tremendous pitcher over five seasons in Pittsburgh, a grade above Wheeler, in fact. But he took his game to an even higher level the last two seasons in Houston. He benefitted from the information provided to him by the brains in the Astros’ vaunted analytics department and parlayed that into the richest contract ever given to a pitcher when he signed with the Yankees for $324 million last week.
“I think there’s another step that I can take,” Wheeler said. “Seeing guys like Gerrit Cole. He has a lot of the same stuff I have repertoire-wise and I think he figured it out and took that next step and that’s also where I want to go.”
Under general manager Matt Klentak, and underwritten by ownership, the Phillies have built a sizable research and development, or analytics, department full of big brains and cutting edge technology. The Mets, according to industry insiders, are behind the curve in the analytics movement.
“Really last year was the first year I started messing around with that kind of stuff so just getting my feet wet with it,” Wheeler said. “Matt here explained to me that they're on board with all that stuff. Like I said, to see other guys around the game really mess with it and see their performance get better, I want to get there, too.
“With all the new technology these days, you take it for what it is. You try stuff and if it doesn’t work you forget about it. If it does help you, it’s that much better.”
Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-hardest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and Jacob deGrom.
“I keep going back to Cole because everyone keeps comparing me to him,” Wheeler said. “This offseason, I really thought about it. I watched him pitch in Pittsburgh and he was a great pitcher then, but he did something to take that next step and now he’s elite, the best pitcher in the game right now.
“I read he’s throwing more four-seam fastballs up in the zone. His slider spin got a little tighter. Stuff like that. That’s stuff I can do also. I just haven’t done it yet because it hasn’t been translated to me that way. So I think now we're starting to figure that out and hopefully I can take that next step when I start working that into my mix.”
There were pitchers in the Phillies’ clubhouse who complained of receiving too much analytic data last season, complained of being messed with too much, but it doesn’t sound like information overload will be a problem for Wheeler. He subscribes to Larry Andersen's Think Long, Think Wrong philosophy.
“I’m pretty simple,” Wheeler said. “I don’t like too much information. I don’t like to overthink. I like to trust myself and trust my abilities.
“But between starts in the bullpen, I think that’s when analytics can help. I just have to use it the right way, whether it’s pitch sequencing, staying behind the ball more to make it have truer spin. There’s lots of different stuff you can tell with slow-motion video or spin rate. Little stuff can make a big difference.”
According to Klentak, Wheeler only needs some little stuff to take the next step that the Phillies are banking on.
“He's pretty good already,” Klentak said. “I think when a pitcher like Zack possesses the pure, raw stuff that he does, it opens up a lot of possibilities. We talked about some detail during the recruitment process, during the free agent process. He doesn't need to change much. He may not change much at all. We think the upside is very, very — he's already really good — and we think the upside is even better than that.”
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