Gerrit Cole is going to be the most coveted pitcher on the market when free agency begins after the World Series ends. As such, it is going to take a massive financial commitment to land the right-hander, who is coming off an utterly dominant season in which he posted a 2.50 ERA and set a record for strikeout rate.
Assuming Zack Wheeler joins Cole on the open market, he will not do so with quite the same fanfare or contract demands. But Wheeler still would draw plenty of interest and have an argument as the No. 3 starter available, behind Cole and Stephen Strasburg (if he opts out). Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Jake Odorizzi and Cole Hamels are some of the other pending free-agent starters, but there are reasons to believe Wheeler might lead that group on offseason shopping lists.
Most importantly, Wheeler has already been good for the past two years. The righty posted a 3.65 ERA and 3.37 FIP over 60 starts and 377 2/3 innings from 2018-19, striking out a batter per inning. Depending on whether you prefer the FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference version of WAR, Wheeler was either MLB’s 10th or 19th most valuable pitcher during that time.
But signing a free agent is about the future, not the past. And that’s where Wheeler gets even more interesting. What if the best is still yet to come? What if Wheeler can follow Cole’s lead and, with the right sort of guidance, make a leap forward?
Here is some fuel for that particular fire, from Wheeler’s Baseball Savant player page:
Wheeler and Cole are both 6-foot-4 right-handers. Both are currently 29 years old. Both were high first-round picks -- Wheeler No. 6 overall in 2009 and Cole No.1 in ‘11. But that match score isn’t about these superficial details.
Rather, this is about the speed and movement of their pitches. And on a scale from zero up to one, no starting pitcher rated more similarly to Wheeler than Cole (0.94), who was a bit ahead of Nathan Eovaldi (0.92) and Brandon Woodruff (0.90). Similarly, no pitcher rated more similarly to Cole than Wheeler.
That doesn’t mean Wheeler can or will do what Cole just did. That bar is about as high as it gets. But it helps explain why at least some teams might see Wheeler as capable of more than his past results -- just as Cole was when the Astros acquired him from the Pirates two years ago.
As a National League talent evaluator told MLB executive reporter Mark Feinsand recently, speaking of Wheeler, “He’ll find a team that is willing to bet on him and his upside.”
That source was representing the optimistic point of view on Wheeler, who could scare some teams off with an injury history that includes two seasons (2015-16) lost to Tommy John surgery, further arm troubles in ‘17 and a short stint on the injured list this July with right shoulder fatigue. There’s also the matter of a possible qualifying offer, which, if declined, would cost a new team signing Wheeler a Draft pick.
Those concerns aside, here is why Wheeler could capture some teams’ imaginations this winter:
Two Ps in a pod
The match score isn’t dependent on pitch types, per se, although Cole and Wheeler throw the same five offerings (in different proportions): four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, curveball and changeup. More precisely, it’s about velocity and movement -- which obviously correlate well to pitch types.
The algorithm considers each of a pitcher’s pitches individually, compares it to every other pitch thrown in the Majors, and determines which ones have the same velocity/movement profile, and who threw them. Then it considers each of a pitcher’s games, and which games by other pitchers had the most matching pitches.
Cole’s score of 0.94 relative to Wheeler means that in 94% of Wheeler’s games in 2019, at least half the pitches he threw matched the profile of pitches thrown by Cole. This visual representation of the horizontal and vertical movement (in inches) of each of their pitches also illustrates the similarities, with a great deal of overlap between the two (Each color corresponds to a pitch type, with four-seamers in red, sinkers in orange, sliders in yellow, curves in blue and changeups in green).
Take those four-seamers. Cole’s average velocity (97.1 mph) ranked third among the 137 starters who threw the pitch at least 400 times in 2019. Wheeler (96.8 mph) was just behind him, in sixth. Cole gets more vertical movement (or “rise”) on his four-seamer, but the two pitches have similar horizontal movement -- 3.3 inches above average for Wheeler, and 3.6 for Cole (compared with those of similar velocity).
When Cole went from Pittsburgh to Houston before the 2018 season, he cut his sinker usage by more than half, while throwing more four-seamers and breaking balls. He also dramatically increased his spin rate (on four-seamers and breaking balls) and began elevating his four-seamer more.
It’s too much to expect Wheeler’s results to follow suit. But it’s also not so difficult to see how a similar plan might unfold.
While more than half of Cole’s pitches this year were four-seamers, Wheeler went to his 30% of the time, almost even with his sinker usage. Yet the four-seamer was the far more effective pitch, in terms of opponent slugging (.336 vs. .454) and whiff rate (27.1% vs. 15.9%), as the sinker was hit much harder than it was in 2018, along with a drop in ground-ball rate.
Wheeler also threw his four-seamer a quarter of a foot lower, on average, than Cole, going to the upper third of the zone or above far less often.
Meanwhile, Wheeler threw about 30% breaking balls this season, nearly identical to Cole’s 2017 rate, which then jumped by about 10 percentage points and accompanied a significant increase in effectiveness.
It should go without saying that pitching is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and it’s about more than velocity and pitch movement. There isn’t one simple plan to unlock greatness in every arm, and even a state-of-the-art and personalized player development program isn’t always going to overcome Major League challenges.
In other words, Wheeler plus more breaking balls and high four-seamers, and fewer sinkers, does not equal Cole. It’s likely that no combination of adjustments would.
But the current version of Wheeler is already quite good. The tantalizing possibility of more -- at a fraction of Cole’s cost -- will make Wheeler a name to watch.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.