Wheeler is man of mystery in Phils spring debut

February 29th, 2020

DUNEDIN, Fla. --  did not want to tip his hand on Saturday at TD Ballpark.

He wants National League hitters to keep guessing as long as possible. But it does not take a fully staffed research and development department to know that he might pitch a little differently in 2020. Wheeler signed a five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies in December because he has electric stuff and because a lot of people think his best is yet to come. They think a tweak or two might help him get there.

It might mean a few more four-seam fastballs and curveballs.

“I think [the Mets] did a good job of that last year,” said Wheeler, who allowed two runs in two innings in a 6-5 loss to the Blue Jays in his Grapefruit League debut. “They sort of got through to me and made me realize that my fastball plays up a lot better, maybe start throwing the curveball more -- that type of stuff. The curveball is a really good pitch for me, but I just don't throw it that much. I probably should throw it a little bit more. It's something I have to get used to and work it in.”

The reason people think that combination might work is because Wheeler compares favorably to Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who became a superstar after he started throwing more four-seam fastballs and breaking balls with the Astros in 2018. MLB.com’s Andrew Simon wrote about their similarities in December, particularly the velocity and movement of their pitches. For example, Cole’s fastball averaged 97.1 mph last season, ranking third among 137 starters (minimum 400 four-seam fastballs). Wheeler (96.8 mph) ranked sixth. Cole has more vertical movement on the pitch, but they have similar horizontal movement.

“Zack has the ability to pitch up there because he’s got great velo,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said.

It does not mean Wheeler will be abandoning his sinker and working the bottom of the zone, however.

“You have to pitch to your strengths,” Wheeler said. “Some guys are better off pitching down and maybe showing ‘up’ every once in a while. Some guys are better throwing up a little bit more, but you also have to command the down pitch. The biggest thing about pitching is you have to change eye levels -- in, out -- no matter who you are. You have to command the fastball and command the offspeed. Just keep guys off-balance. As long as you do that, it doesn't matter where you throw the ball.”

“Oh, he’s going to work down, too,” Girardi said. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Wheeler’s curveball is intriguing. He threw it only 10 percent of the time last season, but opponents had a .205 expected batting average and a .246 expected slugging percentage against it, making it the most effective of the five pitches he regularly threw (four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup and curveball).

Does he think he will be throwing more of them this season?

“Maybe,” he said.

So far, Wheeler said his chats about pitch usage with new pitching coach Bryan Price and the Phillies’ analytics team have been minimal.

It’s early.

“They are learning me,” he said. “They are asking me what I like and all that type of stuff. We'll get to that point. It might not be right now.”