Zack Wheeler believes Phillies’ analytics team could put a little (Gerrit) Cole in his stocking

Zack Wheeler believes Phillies’ analytics team could put a little (Gerrit) Cole in his stocking

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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This indefinite delay may be frustrating for these five Phillies

This indefinite delay may be frustrating for these five Phillies

Everyone is disappointed that the 2020 MLB season didn't start on time — owners, executives, managers and coaches, players and of course the fans who have been longing for baseball's return. There are so many intriguing storylines surrounding the Phillies. We were all so excited to watch this season play out.

The players themselves are all undoubtedly bummed. But this indefinite delay has to be especially frustrating for these five Phillies.

Rhys Hoskins

I can't imagine anyone was more anxious to get back to work in 2020 than Hoskins. The second half of his 2019 season was brutal. He hit .180 with just nine HR and 26 RBI in 71 games following the All-Star break. You could see that prolonged slump taking its toll on Hoskins. He wore the frustration outwardly on a nightly basis. For a guy who has experienced success at every stop of his baseball career, his struggles last season had to be confusing. What am I doing wrong? How can I get this fixed? Will I ever break out of this slump?

Hoskins spent a lot of time in the offseason adjusting his mental and physical approach at the plate. He admitted he was thinking too much last year. He worked with new hitting coach Joe Dillon, lowering his hands and opening his stance. He was eager to get back to being a force in the middle of the Phillies batting order, eager to prove that the second half of 2019 was a fluke. He wanted to get back to being one of the premiere sluggers in the National League.

But now Hoskins waits just like the rest of us to find out when (or if) he'll get that opportunity.

Jake Arrieta

This is the final year of the three-year, $75 million contract that Arrieta signed with the Phillies prior to the 2018 season. He'd be the first one to tell you that the Phillies haven't gotten their money's worth on that deal. Arrieta battled injuries and inconsistency in his first two seasons in Philadelphia. He pitched through a knee injury that required surgery in 2018, finishing that season with a 3.96 ERA in 31 starts. His 2019 season was cut short due to surgery in August to clean out a bone spur in his right elbow. He posted a 4.64 ERA in 24 starts before he was shut down.

The 34-year old Arrieta has hardly resembled the guy who won a World Series and Cy Young Award with the Cubs. But this spring he said he's 100 percent healthy and ready to make the type of impact the Phillies bargained for when they signed him to that big contract. Arrieta looked sharp in spring training. He was going to slot into the third spot in the rotation behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. A big year from Arrieta would do wonders for the Phillies' playoff chances. It would also put him in a great position as he ventures back into free agency following the 2020 season.

Bryce Harper

A lot of signs pointed to Harper having a monster 2020 season. He had a full offseason and spring training to focus solely on baseball as opposed to a year ago when he didn't know which team he'd be playing for or where his family would be living until the end of February. He was settled in playing with his new team and living in his new city. And perhaps maybe most telling, he was tearing the cover off the ball in spring training. Harper hit .500 with three doubles, three HR and 11 RBI in eight exhibition games. He was locked and loaded for the regular season.

But now Harper's potential MVP caliber season has been put on hold. If there is a 2020 season, it almost certainly won't be 162 games. Which means we won't find out what numbers he was capable of putting up in his second season with the Phillies. At 27 years old, Harper still has plenty of his prime years ahead of him. But this one could have been special. Hopefully it still can be.

Zach Eflin

Of all the Phillies starting pitchers, Eflin may be best positioned to make 'the leap' in 2020. The righthander is coming off an uneven 2019 season, posting a 10-13 record with a 4.13 ERA. It was a year full of ups (a pair of complete games) and downs (a July demotion to the bullpen). Eflin's skill set didn't mesh with how former pitching coach Chris Young wanted pitchers to attack hitters. Young stressed the importance of throwing fastballs up in the zone. Eflin is most effective when he relies on his sinker.

New pitching coach Bryan Price wants Eflin and the rest of the Phillies starters to pitch to their strengths. Price preaches efficiency, he wants Eflin to use his sinker early in the count to get ground ball outs. This appears to be a perfect union of coach and player. Eflin turns 26 on Wednesday, he enters his fifth big league season with 74 career starts under his belt. A lot of evidence suggests he may be poised for a career year.

Scott Kingery

After bouncing all over the diamond during his first two seasons with the Phillies, it looks like Kingery will finally get the chance to settle in at his natural position of second base this year. He played mostly shortstop, center field and third base in his first two major league seasons with cameos at second base, left field and right field. He's been valuable in that super utility role but he's mentioned his desire to play second base regularly. With Didi Gregorius at shortstop and Jean Segura playing third base during spring training, Kingery appears to be penciled in as the starter at second base.

Kingery's offensive numbers improved significantly from 2018 to 2019. He hit .258 last season with 34 doubles and 19 home runs, up from .226 with 23 doubles and eight HR in 2018. Being more comfortable at his natural position in the field should only enhance his production at the plate. Kingery bulked up in the offseason in hopes of taking his game to the next level. Time will tell if he gets the chance to do so.

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How Jean Segura's heroics vs. Mets in 2019 further debate on his future

How Jean Segura's heroics vs. Mets in 2019 further debate on his future

There’s few things Phillies fans enjoy more than a comeback, walk-off win against the Mets. So make sure to give yourself a smile by watching just that on NBC Sports Philadelphia today. 

Specifically, we’re bringing you a 5-4 win from June of last season that ended with a Jay Bruce RBI double in the bottom of the 10th. But it was the play of Jean Segura that night that got the Phillies into a position to win it. The then-Phillies shortstop hit a solo home run off future and past teammate Jason Vargas (what a Phillies career he had) in the bottom of the 6th to cut the deficit to 4-1. In the 7th, Segura connected off Seth Lugo for a game-tying 2-run single.

That game proved to be a positive moment in a below-average season for the veteran infielder. In his 1st campaign with the Phillies, the walk and strikeout averse Segura hit .280. That’s 24 points lower than he batted with the Mariners the year before. His home runs only improved from 10 to 12, despite moving from cavernous T-Mobile Park to the much more long-ball conducive Citizens Bank Park.
All signs point to Segura moving from shortstop to 2nd base when regular season baseball takes place with Didi Gregorius signed in the offseason to play shortstop. While the returns on the infield realignment remain to be seen, Segura’s impact needs to be most felt at the plate and in the Phillies lineup.
So was last season the beginning of a decline for the recently-turned 30-year old Segura? Or just a slight dip for a player that hit .300 or better in each of the previous three seasons? 
A reason for optimism is Segura’s assertion that he entered spring training in February in much better shape than the previous season. That said, we don’t definitively know how this current hiatus will impact that physical conditioning. Pessimists will point out that history (not including the late 80s to the early 2000s) suggests players don’t get better as they enter their 30s.
Ultimately, it will add to the degree of difficulty for the Phillies to get where they want to go this season if Segura is not a .300 hitter that sets the table for the heart of the lineup.

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