When Zack Wheeler signed a five-year, $118 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in Dec. 2019, some were calling it an "overspend," or felt that Wheeler was not worth this type of contract.
But after 43 starts in red pinstripes, Wheeler has proved that he was more than worthy of this deal, and the signing just may go down as the best of former General Manager Matt Klentak's tenure.
After finishing 12th in Cy Young voting during the shortened 2020 MLB season, Wheeler still had more left to prove in 2021. In his first start of the season versus the now World Champion Atlanta Braves, Wheeler gave Phillies fans a taste of what the rest of his starts in 2021 would look like. He one-hit the Braves through seven innings, while needing just 90 pitches to strike out 10 batters, earning his first win of the season.
On May 6 against the Milwaukee Brewers, Wheeler picked up his first complete-game shutout of 2021. He allowed just three hits and struck out eight, but he was just getting started. To finish out the month, Wheeler struck out a combined 36 batters in his final three starts. This included 10 Miami Marlins on the 18th, 12 Red Sox on the 23rd, and 14 Tampa Bay Rays on the 29th. Through 43.1 innings pitched, he sported a 2.08 ERA for the month. This was around the time Wheeler entered into the National League Cy Young Award conversation, and rightfully so.
In June, Wheels continued to tack on to his Cy Young campaign. Even with a lackluster start on the 22nd where he pitched just three innings and racked up 73 pitches, his ERA for the month was still only 1.44. In 31.1 innings, Wheeler struck out 38 batters and allowed just five runs on five hits.
Wheeler's ERA for the month of July was 3.24, while his FIP was 2.48, meaning the Phillies' defense didn't do him any favors. He allowed 12 runs on 15 hits in July, striking out 35 in 33.1 innings. This was about as off course as Wheeler would go in 2021. He was selected to his first All-Star Game as well, with National League manager Dave Roberts choosing Max Scherzer to start for the NL over Wheeler. In fact, Wheels wasn't even brought in to the game until there were two outs in the ninth inning, and he delivered, needing just three pitches for strikes. Even teammate Zach Eflin agreed that Wheeler was snubbed.
Although many of Wheeler's starts were special this season, his most magical one came on Aug. 8. On the same day the Phillies retired Roy Halladay's #34, Wheels pitched a complete-game shutout, his second of the season, allowing just two hits, one walk, and striking out 11 New York Mets. In doing so, Wheeler became the first Phillies pitcher to retire 22 consecutive batters since Halladay's perfect game on May 29, 2010.
In his final nine starts of the season, Wheeler pitched to the likes of 3.77 ERA and 3.07 FIP, racking up 66 more strikeouts to finish with 247, which led the NL. Wheeler also led all of the majors in innings pitched with 213.1, batters faced with 849, complete games with three, and shutouts with two. His 2.78 ERA and 1.01 WHIP ranked fifth overall in the majors.
Zack Wheeler threw 3,023 pitches in 2021, an arsenal comprised primarily of a four-seamer, slider, sinker, and curve, that put him in elite company atop MLB pitching leaderboards. The 6'4" right-hander was Philadelphia's ace, and although competing with the outstanding pitching performances across the majors this season will be difficult, Wheeler has the numbers to earn the first Cy Young Award of his career, and be the first Phillie to do it since Halladay.
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