Zack Wheeler on Continuing To Evolve

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Wheeler has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball over the past four seasons. Since joining the Philadelphia Phillies prior to the truncated 2020 campaign, the 33-year-old right-hander has made 101 starts and boasts a 3.06 ERA, a 2.90 FIP, and a 26.7% strikeout rate. Moreover, his 19.3 WAR over that span is tops among his contemporaries.

A thirst to continually get better has helped bring Wheeler to the pinnacle of his profession. Never entirely satisfied with the depth and quality of his arsenal, he’s always looking for a new edge, whether it’s an additional weapon or an upgrade to one already in his toolbox. Just last year he added a sweeper, and opposing hitters can expect to see yet another option when he takes the mound in 2024.

Wheeler discussed his growth as a pitcher, as well as his goals going forward, last week at the Phillies’ spring training complex in Clearwater.


David Laurila: How have you evolved as a pitcher over the years?

Zack Wheeler: “I’ve developed more pitches since I got drafted. Everything has gotten crisper. After my TJ [in 2015], I was able to gain some command, which I didn’t have before. So pairing the repertoire with command took me to that next level. Really, a lot of it has just been repetition and learning, and from there putting it all together.”

Laurila: What did you do after Tommy John surgery that helped you improve your command?

Wheeler: “I shortened up my arm action a little bit. I used to be pretty long, and I used to curl my wrist behind me — one more thing that kind of had to catch up. The wrist curl was night and day; it was crazy. I didn’t know at the time what I was doing. Shortening up was going to protect me more, and getting rid of that was part of shortening up.”

Laurila: Was it an easy adjustment to make?

Wheeler: “No, not really. It came in streaks. I missed two full seasons. I came to spring [training] in 2017 and was still working on it. I didn’t have a good spring, because I was working on in-game action, facing hitters finally. I started the year in the minor leagues, because I just couldn’t get it down, get it right. I was like, ‘All right, screw it. This is my time to work on it, throwing to hitters in minor league camp.’ Then I went to Triple-A, somebody got hurt at the big league level, so I just came right back up. But it took some time, and it took practice.”

Laurila: Has your stuff getting crisper been a byproduct of a better delivery?

Wheeler: “I think so. A better arm action allows me to be more consistent with it, the same spot every time. Most of the time, I should say, rather than… sometimes your arm is late, so the ball sails, or you try to play catch-up and you yank it. That type of stuff. Also, Caleb [Cotham], our pitching coach here, has helped me out a lot with spin. He’s very good at teaching spin. You know, ‘Your hand needs to be here at a certain point.’”

Laurila: Are you a pitching nerd?

Wheeler: “He’s my pitching nerd.”

Laurila: The game has obviously evolved, with data, pitching labs, and all that…

Wheeler: “He does it for me, because he understands it a lot better than I do. In our bullpens, we’ll kind of dissect. We have really nice bullpens set up in Philly. We’ve got all the cameras and TVs, and he knows how to read it just like that.

“He helped me get the sweeper last year. I tried to throw it in 2022, and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t throw it at all. Then he came to me during the offseason with a new grip. It was the old curveball grip I used to have, so it felt comfortable. It was just a matter of a release here [more on the side of the ball] instead of here [more over the top], and that’s easy for me. He’s very good at helping you understand. He’s fresh out of the game basically. He’s young. He knows both parts of it.”

Laurila: Did he tell you that your arm action is conducive to a sweeper?

Wheeler: “Kind of. Plus, I just wanted a new pitch. I try to come with a new pitch every year, to a certain extent. Either that or just try to really perfect a pitch. Last year was the sweeper, which has been a good pitch for me. I couldn’t tell you [the metrics]. I know what it needs to look like, and it tells me if it’s good or bad. I kind of go off of that.”

Laurila: Is anything in the works for this season?

Wheeler: “I’m trying to throw the splitter a good bit more this year. I’ve always had it — kind of. Five to 10 times a year, maybe. Certain hitters — maybe a Freddie Freeman — where it’s ‘please chase it’ or ‘here it is,’ trying to make them think something else might be coming. But that’s all I’d throw it, and now I’m going to try to throw it a lot more. Lefties hit me a lot better last year, because everything was basically going in to them.

“I wanted to throw it back in the day, in the minor leagues with the Giants, but I was fresh from being drafted and they said, ‘Save that for when you need it, maybe when your stuff starts slowing down a little bit.’ I was like, ‘All right. Cool. Whatever.’ My stuff hasn’t really slowed down, at this moment, but I need something that goes away to lefties. That’s why I want to do it right now.”

Laurila: A lot of splitters basically just go straight down. Is yours actually getting arm-side movement?

Wheeler: “Some of them are. I’ve been throwing them in bullpens, and I threw them in a live [batting practice]. Caleb is always there. I throw some that kind of cut just a hair. I throw some that kind of just go straight down. And then there are some that go more like a traditional changeup, arm-side run with a little dip. It’s like, ‘All right, that’s what it’s supposed to look like,’ but I’m also not mad when they cut just a hair, as long as they’re still going down and there is a velo difference. I’m okay as long as they’re doing that — they’re not bad pitches — but I want to perfect it. I want them to be nasty. Boom!”

Laurila: Any final thoughts on pitching?

Wheeler: “I always like mixing things up, springing new stuff to the plate so that hitters are on their toes. At the same time, I’m not a pitching nerd. I like keeping things simple.”

Laurila: Simple, yet always trying new things…

Wheeler: “I mean, you want to be the best. You also want to keep the hitters from hitting it off your forehead. Coming up with something new helps keep them on their toes.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Cool Lester Smoothmember
3 months ago

“He’s my pitching nerd” is an all-time compliment to a coach.

Really happy for Caleb Cotham – I remember his days as a Yankees farmhand.