Big Wheel Keeps on Turning in Philadelphia

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while since the Phillies have had to worry about the front of their starting rotation, which over the past four seasons has been anchored by co-aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, though last year it was uncertain how much longer that stability would continue: Nola became a free agent at the end of last season and Wheeler’s contract was set to expire after the 2024 campaign.

But Philadelphia acted swiftly to keep both pitchers around. After re-signing Nola before Thanksgiving, the Phillies announced on Monday that they had extended Wheeler through the 2027 season. The three-year deal is reportedly worth $126 million, and in terms of its $42 million average annual value, it is the largest extension in baseball history.

Wheeler, who turns 34 in May, has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball since he joined the Phillies in December 2019 on a five-year, $118 million contract. Over the last four seasons, he leads the majors with 19.3 WAR. If RA9-WAR is more your style, Wheeler has the second highest mark in that span despite pitching in front of what often has been a lackluster Phillies defense behind him. He also ranks fourth among qualified starters in FIP (2.90) and innings (629.1), and 11th in ERA (3.09). Last year, he made 32 starts, allowing a 3.61 ERA and 3.15 FIP over 192 innings, enough for a spicy 5.9 WAR.

Top Starting Pitchers, 2020-2023
Zack Wheeler 629.3 3.06 2.90 19.3 18.1
Corbin Burnes 622.3 2.86 2.84 17.9 18.8
Kevin Gausman 611.3 3.15 2.82 17.3 14.6
Aaron Nola 650.7 4.00 3.30 16.6 11.5
Gerrit Cole 664.0 3.08 3.27 15.1 17.3
Max Scherzer 544.7 2.94 3.32 13.8 16.6
Sandy Alcantara 661.0 3.13 3.46 13.8 16.6
Logan Webb 611.0 3.28 3.10 13.8 13.2
Luis Castillo 605.0 3.44 3.47 13.4 12.7
Shane Bieber 502.0 2.98 3.03 12.5 14.1
Framber Valdez 604.7 3.19 3.39 12.5 14.6
Dylan Cease 585.0 3.58 3.70 12.3 11.5
Yu Darvish 573.3 3.63 3.51 12.3 12.5
Max Fried 484.7 2.66 3.03 12.1 16.3
Zac Gallen 587.3 3.26 3.45 12.1 15.6
Sonny Gray 495.0 3.35 3.31 11.8 12.4
Brandon Woodruff 473.3 2.76 3.13 11.8 15.3
Pablo López 534.0 3.57 3.43 11.3 11.7
Jacob deGrom 254.7 2.12 1.77 11.2 10.0
Jordan Montgomery 568.3 3.61 3.64 11.1 11.2

It’s hard to overstate the Wheeler’s importance to the Phillies. When he arrived, Philadelphia was better than it had been during its first five years of rebuilding, when it posted a .427 winning percentage from 2013–17, but it was still barely a .500 club. The Phillies remained stuck in neutral for Wheeler’s first two years, but their rotation improved immediately; after ranking 23rd in the majors in starting pitching WAR in 2019, Philadelphia ranked third in ’20 and fourth in ’21, a year in which Wheeler finished second in the NL Cy Young voting.

The Phillies finally broke through in 2022 and made up for lost time. That year, they won the NL pennant and came within two games of winning the World Series, and they were one win away from making a second consecutive World Series appearance last year. Wheeler has been excellent in the playoffs, too: He has a 2.42 ERA and 2.72 FIP over 11 postseason games (10 starts).

Simply, between his regular season and postseason dominance, the Phillies could not afford to risk losing Wheeler in free agency, even if that meant giving him the most lucrative per-year extension ever.

That said, ZiPS expects Wheeler to decline over the next few years, though that is more based on the inherent health risks that come with a pitcher in his mid-30s, rather than his overall ability. The computer would want to pay him about $30 million per season, but this organization, with its talented but aging core, is firmly in win-now mode. The “Stupid Money” Phillies of all teams weren’t going to let a dollars per WAR figure prevent them from extending their best pitcher.

ZiPS Projection – Zack Wheeler
2024 11 7 3.61 29 29 172.0 155 69 16 48 172 121 4.5
2025 9 7 3.80 26 26 154.0 145 65 16 43 148 115 3.5
2026 8 7 4.06 24 24 144.0 143 65 16 43 133 107 2.9

Whether or not the Phillies win the World Series in the next several years, Wheeler and Nola will go down as one of the greatest pitching duos in team history, along with Curt Simmons and Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton and Larry Christenson, and Jim Bunning and Chris Short. Even if both head to different teams at the end of their new contracts, they still project to be in the top 10 of all-time Phillies pitchers.

ZiPS Projection – Phillies Starters
Pitcher Team WAR
Steve Carlton PHI 75.0
Robin Roberts PHI 62.6
Aaron Nola PHI 51.3
Grover Alexander PHI 50.8
Cole Hamels PHI 40.5
Curt Schilling PHI 38.6
Curt Simmons PHI 33.5
Jim Bunning PHI 31.2
Chris Short PHI 30.7
Zack Wheeler PHI 28.2
Eppa Rixey PHI 24.2
Larry Christenson PHI 22.2
Cliff Lee PHI 21.9
Tully Sparks PHI 20.6
Jimmy Ring PHI 20.4
Rick Wise PHI 19.4
Al Orth PHI 18.9
Charlie Ferguson PHI 18.4
Charlie Buffinton PHI 17.7
Jack Taylor PHI 16.9

At least to my eyes, there aren’t any red flags in Wheeler’s profile that the computer didn’t consider. His breakout seasons came with the Mets, but he didn’t become a true ace until he joined the Phillies. With New York, Wheeler relied on a sinker that threatened to take the hands off right-handed hitters, but he lacked the pinpoint command of the pitch that he has found in Philadelphia, where he has also added a sweeper that maddeningly looks a lot like that sinker as it approaches the plate — until it breaks in the opposite direction. With the Phillies, he has become much better at landing his curve just below the bottom of the strike zone, which has helped him against lefties. Wheeler still throws pretty hard, but he also is much more than just a grip-and-rip hurler. That should help him survive and continue to thrive when his velocity dips as he ages.

Just in case you’re not convinced at this point about the consequences of the Phils not having Wheeler, I ran a quick sim of the 2024 season using the ZiPS projections. ZiPS currently projects the Phillies to have a 56.2% chance of going to the playoffs and 14.4% odds to win the NL East. In the simulations that the Phillies fail to get 20 innings from him (about 6.2% of sims), resulting in a lot more innings from Spencer Turnbull and Mick Abel, the Phillies only made the playoffs 37.1% of the time, and their probability to win the division chopped nearly in half, to 7.6%.

With only Matt Strahm and Jeff Hoffman eligible for free agency after 2024, the front office can start addressing their next challenge, putting together enough young talent to transition the franchise to its next core of players without having to endure another interregnum of rebuilding. But, like the threat of a headache after a night of drinking, that’s a tomorrow problem. For today, keeping Wheeler in town keeps the party going.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 month ago

People on the river are happy to give

1 month ago
Reply to  dozingoffdad

Dombrowski is definitely a person on the river then