Gerrit Cole

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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Phillies free-agent target: Stephen Strasburg

Phillies free-agent target: Stephen Strasburg

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on someone who has tormented the Phillies for years, power-armed right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

The vitals

Strasburg became a Washington Nationals building block when that team selected him first overall in the 2009 draft. A year later, the Nats picked Bryce Harper No. 1 overall.

Strasburg’s talent has never been in dispute. He complements a power fastball with a killer arsenal of off-speed pitches. His issue has always been staying healthy.

In 2019, however, health was not an issue for Strasburg. He stayed on the field, made 33 starts and led the National League in innings (209) and wins (18). He followed that up with 36⅓ innings, 47 strikeouts (to four walks) and a 1.98 ERA in a postseason run that culminated with the Nationals’ winning the World Series. Strasburg was MVP.

Strasburg’s good health and strong season came at an opportune time as the 31-year-old had the right to opt out of the final four years of his seven-year contract and become a free agent. He walked away from $100 million but will surely cash a larger paycheck as he probably ranks second behind Gerrit Cole among pitchers on this free-agent market.

Why he fits

The Phillies say it's time to win and they're in need of a major upgrade in starting pitching. They need proven help at the back end of the rotation and a major difference maker at the top end. Strasburg would be an excellent addition to the top of the rotation, where he could pair with (and take some pressure off) Aaron Nola. The Phillies have already had contact with Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, this offseason. Boras represents several elite free agents, including Cole, and you can be sure the Phils have discussed all of them with him.

And another thing: If you can’t beat him, sign him. Strasburg is 14-2 with a 2.58 ERA and a 0.949 WHIP in 27 career starts against the Phillies. He is also 6-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 starts at Citizens Bank Park.

Why he doesn’t fit

Well, there’s the health history. Strasburg had Tommy John surgery early in his career and he’s spent time on the injured list in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 with neck, elbow, back, shoulder and oblique issues. That could give the Phillies some pause — they’ve been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers in the past — but probably not enough to dissuade them from making a run at Strasburg. The Phils are pretty desperate for pitching and there’s immense pressure on the club to win now. 

Then there’s the matter of the incumbent Washington Nationals, who would like to keep Strasburg. They were already on the hook for four more years and $100 million. They could probably sweeten that by, say, $75 million, and retain the World Series MVP. In fact, with third baseman Anthony Rendon, yet another Boras guy, possibly headed out of the town, the Nats could be under some pressure to do that as they preserve what was the key to their World Series charge — their starting pitching staff.

The price tag

Strasburg was to average $25 million over the next four seasons. He’s coming off a season of health, dominance and a World Series MVP. With so many teams needing elite pitching, a six-year deal worth $180 million could be the ticket.

Scout’s take

“He’s a top of the rotation guy when he’s on the field like he was in 2014 and 2019. In other years, he’s missed a lot of starts with injuries and that has to be a concern as he gets older. But he’s always won games and that’s what it’s all about.”

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Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on Zack Wheeler, a right-hander who is seen as having much untapped potential.

The vitals

The very talented Wheeler has a big fastball — his career-high 96.8-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors among starting pitchers in 2019 — and excellent breaking stuff, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented him from blossoming into a star. He is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA lifetime. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets' manager. Wheeler will turn 30 in May.

Why he fits

His career is trending upward and a team might be getting him just as he’s about to put it all together. Wheeler has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts. He has pitched 182⅓ and 195⅓ innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career. In both 2018 and 2019, he was one of the best in baseball after the All-Star break, going a combined 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA.

Wheeler also reached a career high by throwing a first-pitch strike 65.8 percent of the time, a top-10 mark that placed him ahead of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

Given the supply and demand for starting pitching in the majors, Wheeler is headed for a big payday, but not as big as the top arms in this market. That might allow the Phils to spread around their dollars and fill multiple holes.

Why he doesn’t fit

From Charlie Morton in the starting rotation to David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen, the Phillies have been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers. Wheeler missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored.

The Phillies need to be protective of their high draft picks. They would surrender a second-round pick for the right guy. The question remains: Is the inconsistent Wheeler the right guy? When push comes to shove, the Phils would probably do it.

The price tag

Some team is going to bet on Wheeler being ready to reel off several years of good health and effectiveness. The industry feel is that Wheeler could come in somewhere between the four-year, $68 million deal that Nathan Eovaldi got from Boston last year and the six-year, $140 million that Patrick Corbin got from Washington. In other words, he could be looking at a $100 million payday. 

Scout’s take

“The velocity is intriguing. My concern is he gets hit too hard for the kind of stuff he has. He’s had some health glitches so that makes it a risk for the kind of money he’s going to get. But the raw stuff and potential are definitely there. It just depends on a team’s willingness to risk.”

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