Why Wheeler is Phillies' choice for Game 1

September 30th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Todd Zolecki’s Phillies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Every kid who loves baseball has pretended to be a batter or pitcher in the World Series.

is one of the lucky few who got to live that dream.

“That’s what you grow up playing baseball for, to pitch in the playoffs,” Wheeler said Tuesday, when the Phillies clinched a second consecutive postseason berth. “It’s really hard to make the playoffs. We don’t take it for granted. That’s our goal every year coming into Spring Training is winning the World Series. Last year, we made it there. This year, we want to win it.”

Wheeler will start Game 1 of the best-of-three NL Wild Card Series on Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park.

“Getting that first game is special,” he said. “It means a lot to me.”

Wheeler got the start because he has been one of baseball’s best pitchers since he signed a five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies in December 2019. He is the Phillies’ greatest free-agent pitcher of all time.

“What a great contract,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said about Wheeler’s deal. “I mean, really, with what he’s given us? I’ve heard this is his 101st start [Thursday]. All the wins, all the innings that he’s logged over that time. All the big games that he’s pitched. He’s been worth every penny.”


• Wheeler’s 19.6 WAR from 2020-23 is the best among all pitchers in baseball, according to Baseball Reference. Gerrit Cole (17.8), Max Scherzer (16.6), Sandy Alcantara (16.1) and Max Fried (15.6) round out the top five. Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees the same winter as Wheeler’s deal. Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $245 million contact with the Nationals that winter, too. Wheeler’s deal is a steal by comparison.

• No Phillies pitcher who joined the organization via free agency has been as productive in his first four seasons with the team. To put Wheeler’s success in perspective, Steve Carlton had a 21.3 bWAR from 1972-75, following a trade with the Cardinals. Curt Schilling had 11.9 bWAR from 1992-95, following a trade with the Orioles.

• Not a fan of Baseball Reference’s WAR? Wheeler also ranks first in FanGraphs WAR with 19.3. Corbin Burnes (17.9), Kevin Gausman (17.4), Aaron Nola (16.6) and Cole (15.1) round out its top five.

• Wheeler’s 675 strikeouts with the Phillies are the sixth-most by a free-agent pitcher in his first four seasons with a team since 1995, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Scherzer’s 1,128 strikeouts with the Nationals (2015-18), CC Sabathia’s 821 with the Yankees (2009-12), Cole’s 816 with the Yankees (2020-23), Jon Lester’s 733 with the Cubs (2015-18) and Zack Greinke’s 683 with the D-backs (670) are ahead of him.

• Wheeler’s 675 strikeouts are the most all-time among Phillies free-agent pitchers. The next closest, according to Elias Sports Bureau? Lew Moren, who had 356 strikeouts from 1907-10.

• Wheeler is fourth in baseball with 629 1/3 innings from 2020-23. In an era when Cy Young winners rarely reach the seventh inning, Wheeler has faced 224 batters in the seventh or later, which ranks fourth behind Alcantara (363), Framber Valdez (279) and Nola (229).

None of this guarantees success on Tuesday, of course. But it explains why the Phillies feel great about their chances.

“You’ve just got to keep your emotions in check,” Wheeler said about Game 1. “Don’t get too pumped up. Just pitch normal.”

Normal Wheeler is pretty good.