As Phils' workhorse, is Wheeler the NL Cy?

October 3rd, 2021

MIAMI -- ’s right arm is tired. But he is healthy.

He is happy about that because in seasons past, his elbow might throb for a couple starts, or the AC joint in his shoulder might hurt. But those things never happened this season, even as he pitched a career-high 213 1/3 innings to lead Major League Baseball and position himself to win the National League Cy Young Award.

“We did a lot this year,” Wheeler said a few hours before Saturday night’s 3-1 loss to the Marlins at loanDepot park. “I felt really good for the longest amount of time that I have this year. Most of the second half, probably like the last five or six starts, I pitched pretty well, but I was struggling through it. You saw my velo. There’s a big difference between pitching at 95 vs. 97. It’s kind of cool to see because guys are maybe touching your fastball instead of maybe just missing it. Seeing that difference helps me in the long run, I think.”

Still, Wheeler cannot help but wonder what the next month might have been like if the Phillies made the postseason.

“I’ve definitely thought about it,” he said. “Going into the playoffs, this would be tough for me, man. It’s going to be tough. But I would have done it and done my best.”

Because the Phillies will miss the postseason for a 10th consecutive year, Wheeler will not pitch Sunday’s season finale against the Marlins as previously scheduled. There is no point anymore. His arm is tired, especially following a 60-game season in 2020, and everybody is thinking about saving bullets for October 2022.

“I’m looking out for next year,” he said. “I think as long as we have a good program this offseason, do what I normally do and just prepare my body for next year, I think I’ll be OK. I thought I was going to be OK this year, but I’m kind of happy and excited how long I lasted feeling good.”

Wheeler will learn in November if he won the NL Cy Young Award. He is a favorite alongside Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes and Los Angeles’ Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler. Wheeler finished 14-10 with a 2.78 ERA. He leads baseball in innings, complete games (3), shutouts (2), batters faced (849) and pitching bWAR (7.5). He leads the National League in strikeouts (247). He is second in the NL in FIP (2.58) and WAR (7.3), according to FanGraphs.

“I never even thought about a Cy Young until this year, honestly,” Wheeler said. “I never had a chance at it. I’ve had a couple good halves, and last year was pretty good. I don’t know. It’d be pretty special obviously. It’s the biggest honor you can get. It was the consistency. That’s what I’ve never really had. I think that’s something I take out of this season: I was consistent the whole year.”

He was reliable, too. Today, managers often pull their starters before they face a lineup a third time. One hundred pitches raise red flags.

But Wheeler proved himself to be a throwback. He not only pitched deep into games, he did so and pitched well.

No pitcher in baseball threw more pitches in the seventh inning or later this season than Wheeler (439). Burnes, who threw 165 innings, threw 274 fewer pitches in the seventh inning. Essentially, that is three extra 91-pitch starts for Wheeler. The Athletic’s Jayson Stark crunched some numbers in a story on Friday and found that if Wheeler, Burnes, Scherzer and Buehler never threw a pitch beyond the sixth inning, Wheeler would have the best ERA of the four:

Wheeler: 2.32
Burnes: 2.34
Scherzer: 2.60
Buehler: 2.72

The point being: Wheeler could have posted even better numbers if he had not carried the load for the Phillies, who seized any opportunity to stay away from a bullpen that blew a Major League-record 34 saves.

“Why shouldn’t he be Cy Young?” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “He’s done everything you could ask from a starting pitcher. He’s taken the ball every five days. He’s pitched the most innings. He’s got the most strikeouts. He leads pitchers in WAR. I just don’t understand how he couldn’t. He’s been a workhorse like nobody else in the league. For me, that’s a clear Cy Young.”