Is Wheeler's stuff back? J.T. sure thinks so

April 24th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- It is no surprise that J.T. Realmuto offered the best perspective yet on Zack Wheeler’s interesting spring.

Realmuto is his catcher, after all.

Wheeler allowed four runs in five innings in the Phillies’ 5-3 loss to the Brewers at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday. He struck out five and walked none. He pitched four scoreless innings before he found trouble in the fifth. His four-seam fastball averaged 96.0 mph, up 1.3 mph from his previous start on Sunday in Miami. It touched 97.2 mph three times, 2 mph faster than his fastest pitch on Sunday. He got nine swings and misses (20 percent whiff rate). He got 10 in his first two starts (17.9 percent).

“It’s the best stuff we’ve seen from him so far this year,” Realmuto said. “It was just more crisp, a little sharper. It was more of what we saw from him last year. The ball just had a little more life on it.”

Wheeler is not Wheeler yet, though.

But he is getting there.

“I kind of expected [the velocity] to come,” Realmuto said. “All along I knew that his velo was going to be there. I knew that he got a late start. I was playing catch with him during the lockout in the street in tennis shoes. We were playing catch in front of my house. So I knew that he was going to be a little behind because he was coming back from the sore shoulder and he just wasn’t able to build up properly.

“To be honest, the drop in velo early on wasn’t really surprising to me. I know as the season goes, he’s going to have his velo.”

Most people know Wheeler’s spring story by now. He entered camp behind schedule because he experienced shoulder soreness in December. The Phillies brought him along slowly. Wheeler never pitched in a Grapefruit League game. Instead, he faced Phillies prospects in a couple of intrasquad games.

The Phillies started him in the rotation, fully expecting that he would use his first few starts to build arm strength.

Essentially, Saturday’s start against Milwaukee was his fifth Grapefruit League start.

Pitchers typically get five or six.

“You can’t say enough about how much he wasn’t prepared at the beginning of spring like he normally would be, just because of his sore shoulder and the lockout,” Realmuto said. “He wasn’t able to play long toss the same. He wasn’t able to do his bullpens the same.”

The Phillies opened the fifth with a 3-0 lead. Wheeler gave up a leadoff double to Hunter Renfroe. He struck out Omar Narváez swinging on a 95.2 mph fastball. Lorenzo Cain hit a ground ball up the third-base line for an infield hit. Jace Peterson smacked a hanging curveball to center to score Milwaukee’s first run.

Willy Adames hit a soft line drive to left field with two outs. It fell a few feet in front of Kyle Schwarber, whose throw home got too much grass. Phillies manager Joe Girardi walked to the mound for an honest chat with Wheeler. The right-hander remained in the game, then surrendered a broken-bat, game-tying single to right to Christian Yelich.

The Brewers executed a double steal with Adames stealing home to give Milwaukee the lead.

“It was great to see that and great to see the guys kind of start to get rolling and get going, especially off a guy like Wheeler,” Renfroe said. “He's an incredible pitcher, possibly going to win a Cy Young one day.”

Wheeler probably should have won the award last season, but not enough voters valued the fact that he threw an MLB-best 213 1/3 innings, an eye-popping 46 1/3 innings more than winner Corbin Burnes. But the vote is in the past. Wheeler wants to get back to that level in the future. He figures one more start and he should be there.

“It’s frustrating to me because it is the season and it does matter,” Wheeler said. “You just want to go out there and do your best. But I am still building up. … It’s obviously not the results that I wanted, but I’ve got to take the good from it. I felt a lot better today, a lot more in sync. I made some adjustments in my last bullpen and they showed up in the game. I’m happy with that. I’m still building up. I’m getting stronger and getting into the swing of things. I think some of the adjustments I made unlocked a little bit of that.”