How good can Zack Wheeler be in 2020?
It's one of those baseball questions that can result in a wildly different answer depending who you ask and it's what made him such an interesting free agent to project when the offseason began. I misread the trajectory of Wheeler's market. I thought he'd end up signing for between $80 and $90 million and the number ended up being $118 million over five years.
Production and potential factored into Wheeler's price tag but so did supply and demand. Gerrit Cole was the top pitcher on the free-agent market, Stephen Strasburg was next and then there was Wheeler. Many teams were immediately priced out of the market (or priced themselves out) for Cole and Strasburg and saw Wheeler as a realistically gettable difference-maker to add. Teams like the Twins, White Sox, Braves.
Over the last two seasons, Wheeler made 60 starts with a 3.65 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. He allowed only 14 home runs in 2018 and 22 in 2019. In fact, over the last two seasons, the only pitcher in baseball with as many innings as Wheeler (377⅔) and as few home runs allowed (36) is Jacob deGrom. The ability to keep the ball in the park is more important now than at any point in baseball history. Citizens Bank Park is a lot more hitter-friendly than Citi Field, but keep in mind that Citi Field ranked 16th in home runs last season and 22nd the year before. It was closer to the middle of the pack than it was to Dodger Stadium, Oracle Park and Comerica Park.
Steamer, one of the most accurate player predictor models in the industry, has Wheeler going 11-10 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 31 starts in 2020. It has him striking out 194 batters and walking 53 in 189 innings.
Projection models tend to play it safe. For example, Anthony Rendon is projected by Steamer to hit .284/.374/.506 a year after hitting .319/.412/.598.
The strikeout and walk rates are in line with Wheeler's last two seasons and the innings projection is exactly his average from 2018-19.
But make no mistake, a 4.13 ERA from Wheeler would be a massive disappointment. It would be just barely better than Jake Arrieta's ERA here the last two seasons.
Marcel and ATC, the projection systems utilized at Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, offer this for Wheeler:
B-Ref: 176 IP, 4.04 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.9 K/9
Fangraphs: 189 IP, 3.99 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 9.1 K/9
To round it off, FantasyPros has Wheeler ranked 28th among starting pitchers. Don't underestimate the predictive powers in the fantasy and gambling industries.
Personally, I've watched enough of Wheeler the last two seasons to be confident that he'll be better than this. I'll go out on a limb with this projection of my own:
195 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 9.2 K/9
The only three Phillies pitchers ever to match or exceed those numbers were Aaron Nola in 2018, Cliff Lee in 2011 and Curt Schilling in 1997 and 1998. (Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels missed with strikeout rate.)
Strangely enough, the Phillies have never really had a starting pitcher with Wheeler's velocity. They have never, in franchise history, had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average at least 95 mph with his fastball. Wheeler was at 96.7 mph last season, 95.9 the year before.