How the Phillies Can Maximize Zack Wheeler's Potential

Zack Wheeler could benefit from the same change in pitch repertoire that made Gerrit Cole a monster. The Phillies signed Wheeler on Wednesday to a five-year, $118 million deal. Will they follow the four-seam model and take him to the next level?
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May 31, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When the Astros acquired Gerrit Cole, they took away his two-seamer and turned him into a four-seam monster. Their metrics showed the two-seamer just wasn’t a good enough pitch for Cole and that he had the velocity and spin to live off his four-seamer.

Cole listened and he watched. The Astros sat him down in front of video that backed up the data. He stopped throwing the two-seam fastball, and all he did was become one of the best pitchers in baseball. He soon will be the highest paid pitcher in baseball because of the change. (PitchCast does mistakenly register two-seamers from Cole sometimes, confusing his four-seamer for a two-seamer when it runs and is low.)

Now Zack Wheeler might benefit from the same kind of change in pitch repertoire. I’m curious what new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price will do with Philadelphia’s new $118 million pitcher. Do they leave him alone? Or do they take the approach the Astros did with Cole and help him get to the next level?

The first thing Price should do is ask Wheeler why he throws his two-seamer 29% of the time. That’s way too often for something that is a below average pitch:

Wheeler Two-Seam Fastball, 2019

WheelerMLB Average

Horizontal Run

14"

15"

Drop

16"

25"

Batting Average

.298

.295

Slugging Percentage

.488

.465

Most teams have moved away from two-seamers, especially to off-sided hitters (i.e., righthanded pitchers vs. lefthanded batters). Wheeler’s sinker is particularly ineffective against lefthanded hitters. Lefties hit .333 and slugged .586 against it. Wheeler lacks the command and movement on the pitch to be throwing it so much. Those issues with a two-seamer are not uncommon for long-striders such as Wheeler.

Here’s the other problem with the pitch: Wheeler likes throwing it with runners on because he tries to get groundballs, but the pitch gets crushed with runners on.

Throughout his career Wheeler has been worse with runners on than with the bases empty. That’s not so unusual, but in his case you can blame it on the two-seamer.

Wheeler Fastballs With Runners, 2019

Type of FastballNo.Batting Average

Four-Seamer

416

.234

Two-Seamer

397

.304

Okay, but is his four-seam fastball good enough to throw it more often? You bet it is, as long as he uses it the right way.

Wheeler throws his four-seamer 30% of the time—virtually the same as his two-seamer. Look how this pitch grades out: well above average. Pay attention to perceived velocity. Wheeler is such a long strider that he releases the ball closer to the plate than most pitchers, so his fastball plays up:

Four-Seam Fastballs, 2019

WheelerMLB Average

Velocity

96.8

93.4

Perceived Velocity

97.9

93.3

Spin Rate

2,341

2,287

Now look at Wheeler’s four-seamer according to the height of the pitch:

Wheeler Four-Seam Fastball by Height, 2019

Height (in feet)Batting AverageUsage

3+

.128

31%

2-3

.473

50%

<2

.296

19%

When he elevates his four-seamer it is a very hard pitch to hit, even when he misses location. There is a greater margin of error with a four-seamer at 98 mph than with a two-seamer.

That high four-seamer is a kill pitch, but Wheeler doesn’t throw it enough. He ranked 100th in high four-seamers this year. He threw just 292 elevated four-seamers—fewer than Masahiro Tanaka.

That is a similar profile to how Cole pitched in Pittsburgh. Now look what the Astros did with Cole: a guy that didn’t throw a lot of high four-seamers suddenly lived on them—just as the Launch Angle Revolution by hitters treated low fastballs like catnip:

Cole Elevated Four-Seamers

YearNo.MLB Rank

2017

356

42

2018

698

3

2019

771

2

Here’s what Cole told me about making the right transition at the right time: “I always tried to pound down to create groundballs. But with the way the league acted with the [livelier] balls and the way hitters’ swing path [changed], that two-seam was getting elevated as opposed to getting crushed to the third baseman.

“My first four years in the league we were just destroying people with two-seams at the bottom of the zone and having good success. But that ended up being one-dimensional and the transition here was like at the perfect time. And it helped me health-wise, too. It’s a lot easier on the arm.”

Now let’s match up Cole and Wheeler when it comes to their four-seam fastballs. They let go of their four-seamers at almost the exact same height—low. That’s good. Throwing a high-spin, high-velocity four-seamer from a low release point to the top of the strike zone is the ideal formula to miss bats. Cole just does it much more often than Wheeler:

Four-Seam Fastball Comparison, 2019

Vertical Release (in feet)MPHRPMUsageElevated

Cole

5.85

97.1

2,530

52%

44%

Wheeler

5.77

96.8

2,341

30%

31%

Bottom line: the Phillies have a great arm on their hands. Now they should work with Wheeler to de-emphasize the two-seamer and master the art of true four-seam spin at the top of the zone.