Zack Wheeler's spring debut offers interesting look at fastball location debate in Phillies camp


DUNEDIN, Fla. — Zack Wheeler was pleased with his Phillies debut Saturday.

Except for one pitch.

He surrendered a two-run homer to Toronto’s Danny Jansen in the second inning. It came on a two-seam fastball with a 2-1 count.

“It was a decent pitch, but I would have liked it to have been up a little more, more at his hands than his knees where he was able to get extended down there,” said Wheeler, who pitched two innings in a 6-5 loss.

Pitch locations have been a huge talking point so far in this Phillies camp. Several pitchers were asked to emphasize fastballs at the top of the strike zone last season and the results were not good. At least one pitcher, Zach Eflin, pushed back against the strategy late last season and others have publicly expressed their opposition to the practice this spring. It’s not that they are necessarily against riding an occasional fastball up in the zone, they just don’t want to be forced to exclusively do that. They want to pitch to their strengths and for some of them that means pitching down in the zone.

Wheeler, however, is blessed with a power fastball that allows him to hunt swings-and-misses up in the zone. Over the last two seasons, he has thrown 1,111 fastballs that have registered 97 mph or more. The rest of the Phillies’ starting staff threw just 40 fastballs of 97 mph more over the same period of time.

The home run pitch to Jansen was not a four-seam, power fastball. Wheeler sought sinking action by throwing a two-seamer. But the pitch served to illustrate why some teams ask their pitchers to throw higher in the zone, especially in the launch angle era. As Wheeler said, had he executed the pitch higher in the zone, Jansen might not have been able to extend and make good contact.

“That was a nice down-and-in pitch, but that's not where I would like my two-seamer to go on a right-handed hitter,” Wheeler said. “I like it more at the belt or up. He won't get his arms extended there. Down, you can drop the barrel to it and do what he did. It was a perfect example for me. I like to pitch up a little bit more in that spot. You have to pick your spot.”

Other than old standbys such as throw strikes, get ahead, stay off the middle of the plate, there is no universal way of pitching and that seems to be something being stressed by new pitching coach Bryan Price. He believes in pitching to one’s strengths. For guys like Eflin, Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, that means down in the zone with movement.

But Wheeler has the versatility of stuff to have dual residences. He can live a little up and he can live a little down. And regardless of where he’s living with a particular pitch, locating it is important as the home run to Jansen showed.

“It's up to the pitcher,” Wheeler said. “You have to pitch to your strengths. 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 off-speed. Just keep guys off balance. As long as you do that, it doesn't matter where you throw the ball.”

So far, Wheeler, who signed a five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies in December, is enjoying his relationship with Price as much as the rest of the staff.

“I think he’s been kind of just watching me, figuring me out and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Wheeler said. “We talk about certain things. I let him know what some of my habits are, some of my bad habits like rushing to the plate or I might lean back a little bit. So, I’m letting him know what to look for basically and he’s helped me out a couple of times doing that even in the bullpens.”

Back in December, Wheeler said he was looking forward to interacting with the Phillies’ analytics team to see how it could help him.

“Kind of like Bryan, they’re watching,” Wheeler said. “They’re learning me. They’re asking me what I like and all that type of stuff.”

In addition to power stuff, Wheeler features a curveball and changeup, both of which he’ll look to polish over the remainder of camp. Manager Joe Girardi has not yet announced his rotation, but Wheeler lines up to start the second game of the season behind Nola.

Girardi’s take on Wheeler’s debut Saturday was basically all you need to know after a pitcher’s spring debut.

“All good,” he said.

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