How Zack Wheeler went from good in New York to great in Philadelphia

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NEW YORK -- Zack Wheeler hasn't been a good signing for the Phillies.

He's been a great signing.

Wheeler ranked third, behind Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, on the depth chart of free-agent starting pitchers after the 2019 season. 

Cole signed a massive nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees that carries an average annual value of $36 million. Strasburg re-signed with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $245 million, average annual value $35 million.

Wheeler's five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies carries an average annual value of $23.6 million, a steal when held up against the other two big contracts that free-agent winter.

Injuries have limited Strasburg to just seven starts since signing his contract. Meanwhile, Cole has been the stud the Yankees envisioned. Entering Saturday, he was 27-12 with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in 306 innings over 51 starts for that club.

While Cole has delivered for the Yankees, the Phillies have gotten a lot more bang for their buck from Wheeler.

The right-hander from the Atlanta suburbs will make his 52nd start for the Phillies on Sunday night. He will enter the game with a 21-15 record, a 2.89 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP over 329⅔ innings in red pinstripes.

Again, great signing.

It frames up nicely that Wheeler, on the day before he turns 32, will start Sunday night's nationally televised game for the Phillies. The opponent will be the New York Mets, the team with which he spent seven seasons before coming to Philadelphia, the team that was wary of his health history and inconsistency and made no real effort to retain him after his health and consistency showed signs of improvement in 2018 and 2019. Former Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, in explaining the team's willingness to let Wheeler walk, made the comment that the pitcher had put together two good half seasons and not much more.

"He was kind of right," Wheeler admitted Friday.

What is it the country music song says? Oh, yeah. How do you like me now?

Since joining the Phillies, Wheeler leads the majors in innings and his ERA is sixth-best among starting pitchers. His opponents' slugging percentage of .332 is fourth-best in the majors, his 351 strikeouts are seventh-most and his average fastball velocity of 97.1 mph is fifth-highest among starting pitchers. He is fifth in ground-ball percentage. He ranks No. 2 behind Corbin Burnes and ahead of Kevin Gausman, Max Scherzer and Cole in WAR for starting pitching, according to Fangraphs.

"I feel like I've been putting it together for a couple of years now," Wheeler said.

There have been many factors in Wheeler's growth as a pitcher.

Foremost is good health.

He had Tommy John surgery in March 2015 and did not pitch in the majors again until 2017, when he had more arm problems. Though he was in the major leagues, he was still a developing pitcher and it's hard to develop when you're hurting.

"Being able to work between starts, that's been big," Wheeler said. "I've been able to work on my command, my delivery. Command is the biggest thing that's improved. Whenever you can command the ball with a lot of your pitches, you're going to do well.

"Before surgery, my elbow was killing me. I could barely throw a bullpen, so what am I going to be able to work on?"

Relationships have also helped Wheeler's growth as a pitcher.

In New York, he bonded with rotation-mate Jacob deGrom, a two-time Cy Young award winner. Both are tall and long-limbed with similar pitching styles and repertoires. Wheeler watched deGrom's bullpen sessions, his game work. They talked about the art of pitching and how mechanics aren't just for cars.

"His big thing was thumb-to-thigh, thumb-to-sky," Wheeler said. "And as soon as I started doing that, I was able to dot fastballs."

Wheeler demonstrated the motion. His right hand came out of his glove with his thumb barely grazing his right thigh. It rose behind his body, thumb to the sky.

"Short and sweet," he said. "I used to go behind me and cock my wrist. It was one more thing that had to catch up along the way. You take out that little stuff and you'll be much more in sync in your delivery."

Wheeler took the lessons he learned from deGrom and carried them to Philadelphia, where he has enjoyed a bond with pitching coach Caleb Cotham.

The two work together regularly in the bullpen, focusing on the action of pitches. Wheeler hasn't been satisfied with his curveball this season. On Friday, the two worked on the pitch in the bullpen. Using Trackman data and technology, Wheeler was able to get instant feedback on the movement of the pitch.

"I'll throw one and Caleb will look at the numbers, vertical break, horizontal break, all that good stuff. I don't know what half of it means, but he translates it and it's helping me," Wheeler said. "We work on an adjustment and with the technology, I can see the result visually. You might see six more inches of vertical break, so it has more depth and the spin is faster and there's more horizontal movement, so it's a better pitch."

At Cotham's suggestion, Wheeler altered some hand positioning on his slider recently. Wheeler has been happy with the action on the pitch.

"I'm getting more spin, more depth and more lateral movement on it," he said.

The two had hoped to refine the pitcher's changeup over the winter but were prevented from communicating because of the lockout.

"Maybe we'll tackle that next offseason," Wheeler said.

Maturity and experience have also helped Wheeler's growth.

Young power-armed pitchers can sometimes be bullheaded and overly proud of their heaters.

The good ones always maintain a love affair with their heaters, but they learn to pitch a little, too.

"Healthier, stronger, a little more mature," Wheeler said of mound growth. "For instance, if somebody leads off with a double and then there's a single, you're thinking, 'OK, first and third, nobody out.' Depending on the score, maybe you're thinking, 'Throw a sinker and get a double play here.' Or if it's a 1-1 game or maybe you're down 2-0, you say, 'Let me try to get this strikeout then go for a double play.'"

What would the younger, less seasoned Zack Wheeler have done in these situations?

"Overthrow," he said.

And that's when a pitcher gets in trouble.

This cerebral approach to pitching has created a curiosity inside Wheeler, a desire to see what else he can do to make a baseball move, a hunger to get even better.

"You have to keep grinding and evolving, watching other guys, trying new stuff," he said. "You have to keep finding yourself. You can't get comfortable."

On Monday in Atlanta, Wheeler threw a front-door cutter to Ronald Acuña Jr. that resulted in a broken-bat ground out to third base.

"It was only the second one of my career," he said. "I threw one to Trea Turner last year on a 3-2 pitch. It was a ball, but it was called a strike. I figured, 'Why not try it again?'"

Wheeler's thirst to succeed and keep getting better also has something to do with the team he will face Sunday night.

He has great respect for the Mets. He's grateful for the support they gave him. But in the end, they didn't think he was worth retaining and that drives him.

"I think it always will," he said. "And it's not anything really against them. I appreciate everything they did. It's just something to motivate myself more. As a competitor, you use stuff along the way. Even though there are no hard feelings, you pick up stuff to push you."

During his time with the Mets, Wheeler pitched often against the Phillies. He liked his trips to Philadelphia and admired the way J.T. Realmuto handled a staff.

So, when it came down to the Phillies or the Chicago White Sox in December 2019, he took less money to join the Phillies. He wanted to stay in the East, close to his Georgia home, his wife had Jersey roots, he knew the division. It all just made sense to him.

Wheeler couldn't be happier with his decision.

"I love pitching in Philly," he said. "The fans are great. I love pitching in that park, always have. I couldn't care less how short the fences are. If you execute pitches ..."

Zack Wheeler has done a lot of that in 51 starts with the Phillies.

He hasn't been a good signing.

He's been a great signing.

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