The National League is rife with pitching this season -- take a look at almost any contending team, and there’s probably a starter among the league leaders in one stat category or another. For much of the beginning of the season, Jacob deGrom seemed like a lock for the NL Cy Young Award: on pace to possibly break the Bob Gibson 1.12 ERA mark, racking up the strikeouts and flat-out dominating. But with his most recent injury, deGrom’s season innings total could end up quite low, and of course, the numbers he was putting up aren’t a guarantee to resume when he returns. The fewest innings by a Cy Young-winning starting pitcher in a non-strike or COVID-shortened season is 180 2/3 by Blake Snell in 2018, and deGrom was barely on pace for that total before this recent injury.
If we look beyond deGrom, there are a lot of great names to consider like Kevin Gausman, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Walker Buehler and Germán Márquez, to name a few.
Whether deGrom returns at full strength, reaches 150-plus innings or not, is it possible that the new Cy Young favorite is deGrom’s former Mets teammate Zack Wheeler? At the very least, it’s worth giving Wheeler’s season to this point its due.
Here’s why Wheeler is making a strong case for a season’s-end award and how he’s doing it.
Pitching a lot -- and doing well when he does
With the innings mention above regarding deGrom, we need to acknowledge from the outset that volume has not been an issue for Wheeler. He’s thrown 132 2/3 innings entering Wednesday’s start against the Nationals, the most of any pitcher in the Majors. He has 12 starts this season of seven or more innings -- nobody else has more than 10 (Adam Wainwright). And they’ve been good innings, too. In nine of those seven-inning starts, Wheeler has allowed one or no runs. No other pitcher has more than six such starts (Julio Urías).
Other counting stats are in his favor, too, like Wheeler’s 4.9 WAR according to FanGraphs, tied with Burnes for most among all pitchers so far this year. The two of them have a hefty 0.9 WAR lead over the next pitcher (Nathan Eovaldi) on the list, too, and a 1.1-WAR lead over the next NL pitcher (Woodruff).
Wheeler also has an NL-high 160 strikeouts, 14 more than the next pitchers on the list -- a tie between Burnes, Woodruff and deGrom.
Underlying stats say this is for real
It’s hard to rack up quality volume like that and have it be smoke and mirrors -- and indeed, the underlying stats support Wheeler’s dominance so far this year. To start with, he isn’t allowing much hard contact, with a 28.9% hard-hit rate allowed, second lowest among all pitchers to allow at least 250 batted balls. In related news, his 2.49 expected ERA -- based on quality of contact, which includes that lack of hard contact -- is the lowest of that same group. Yes, it’s slightly higher than his actual 2.37 ERA, but the closeness of the two marks indicates that his results have just about matched up with the contact he’s allowed -- no luck or other factors involved.
The success is backed up by his pitch arsenal, too. Three of Wheeler’s pitches have a run value of -5 or better: his sinker (-11), slider (-9) and four-seamer (-5). He’s one of just three pitchers with three pitches with that good of a run value, along with Woodruff and Chris Bassitt.
How, exactly, is he doing this?
One of the most salient parts of Wheeler’s game in 2021 has been the strikeouts. After posting an 18.4% strikeout rate in 2020, Wheeler is up to 30.4% in ‘21. That 12.0-percentage point increase is the largest of any pitcher to be qualified in both seasons. He went from an 18th-percentile strikeout rate last season to an 85th-percentile mark so far this year.
His fastball velocity has played a role -- at 97.2 mph, he’s top-five among starters -- but he was 95th-percentile in it in 2020, too. But in 2021, he’s both increased his overall whiff rate and his called-strike rate. His 26.7% whiff rate isn’t league-leading (deGrom’s is 41.4%), but it is higher than his 22.6% mark last year. He also has a 32.6% called-strike rate on takes, which would be the second-highest of his career behind 2019 (33.1%). In 2020, that rate was just 27.4%, the lowest of his career. Both of those lead to more strikes overall, which in turn lead to strikeouts.
His pitch selection has changed in a notable way, too. He still goes with his four-seamer primarily, but in 2020, he threw his sinker 23.7% of the time and his slider 15.9% of the time. In ‘21, his main secondary pitch has been that slider, 26.5% of the time, with the sinker coming in at 18.3%. The slider was good last year, but he has been even better this season, with a .187 opponent average and a .285 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on the pitch. Forty-seven of his 160 strikeouts have been on sliders, after he had just nine on the pitch type last season.
The composition of the NL Cy Young race down the stretch will still depend on deGrom’s return and the level he’s at when he pitches again. But Wheeler is part of a strong group of NL pitchers who have made a strong case all season, and he strengthened it during the time when deGrom has been sidelined.
Wheeler’s success so far in 2021 is for real, so there’s no reason to believe it would let up or change in any way. And as it stands now, his team may be directly competing for the division against deGrom’s team in these final few months, adding another level of intrigue to matchups between the clubs. If he keeps it up, Wheeler seems to have a good chance at becoming the fifth Phillies pitcher to win NL Cy Young, joining Roy Halladay, the most recent to do so, in 2010, as well as Steve Bedrosian, John Denny and Steve Carlton (four times).