Armed with new sweeper, Wheeler could be even nastier

February 28th, 2023

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Hitters might not want to hear this, but Phillies ace just added another pitch to his arsenal.

It’s a variation of his slider.

Some call it a sweeper. Others call it a slurve or even a whirlybird.

Whatever the name, it might become a problem for them. Because it means Wheeler is now throwing a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a tight slider, a bigger slider (aka the sweeper), a curveball and, occasionally, a changeup.

“Just mixing it in here and there,” Wheeler said after pitching two scoreless innings Tuesday in a 7-2 Grapefruit League victory over Toronto at BayCare Ballpark. “It’s more of a slurve, it’s just something else to throw in. I try to bring something new to the table every year, whether it’s throwing the same pitch in a different location that I haven’t thrown it before, or this year it’s a new pitch. It’s going to be a different look a little bit this year, but that’s always a good thing.”

The sweeper is the flavor of the month in baseball, so to speak. It’s essentially a slider with more horizontal break.

In Wheeler’s case, it lands between his traditional slider and curveball.

“It’s probably the best pitch in baseball if you can throw it for a strike,” Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham said. “Sliders are the best pitches in baseball, and it’s probably the best variant of a slider for pitchers who are capable of throwing it. It’s en vogue, for sure. There’s a lot more guys throwing it. [Corey] Kluber was probably the first. Everybody is picking it up.”

Technically, it is a pitch with only horizontal movement because of the way it spins. The spin from Wheeler’s cutter is closer to his fastball. His slider is a little further from the cutter. The sweeper is further from the slider.

The curveball falls after that.

Wheeler threw his sweeper about five times Tuesday. He struck out Blue Jays designated hitter Nathan Lukes with one to end the second inning.

“It’s a creative pitch for a lot of people, but for him, he’s got a lot more freedom on breaking balls to throw strikes away from his sinker-in tunnel,” Cotham said. “As good as he is, he doesn’t get as much chase as you think with the slider.”

If Wheeler threw his traditional slider inside to a right-handed hitter, it might finish over the middle of the plate. But he can throw the sweeper inside and it will cross to the outside of the plate. Out of the hand, hitters might think it is Wheeler’s sinker, which will stay on the inside corner.

Hitters have taken some bad swings at it during live BPs, and again Tuesday.

“They’re thinking it’s sinker forever,” Cotham said. “He’s just got a lot of options now. If you’re sitting away on Zack, you have a tough time with the sinker. If you’re sitting in, you might have a tougher time covering away because there’s a pitch that’s kind of crossing the plate. It’s just another option to attack hitters better and be creative.”

Wheeler not only was happy with the sweeper Tuesday, he was happy with how he felt. Wheeler entered camp last spring with a balky right shoulder, then missed time because of the flu. He touched 97 mph only five times in April last year.

He touched 96.8 mph with his first pitch Tuesday to Whit Merrifield.

“My shoulder wasn’t all that good coming in last year, so it was a struggle,” Wheeler said. “It was just a bunch of things that tumbled into the season. A little bit more normal this year. I felt good. I felt strong. Everything was working. I’ve started off a little better than other springs.”

Extra bases
• Left-hander remains in the Dominican Republic because of visa issues. Soto is supposed to pitch for the Dominican in the World Baseball Classic, but there is a chance that might not happen now because the Phillies would like him to get into camp and prepare for the season.

Rule 5 Draft pick threw another bullpen session in the morning. He is building back up after not pitching competitively since 2019 due to Navy duty. He is a ways from pitching in a game.