Philadelphia Phillies: Zack Wheeler’s career year goes to waste

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

We are all painfully aware that the Philadelphia Phillies, in failing to qualify for MLB’s postseason for the tenth consecutive year, squandered what was essentially a historic season from right fielder Bryce Harper. But let us not overlook the fact that the team received a career year from starter Zack Wheeler, one that he’s unlikely to ever repeat.

And as bad as it was for this Phillies team to fail to capitalize on what is a probable MVP season from Harper, letting Wheeler’s 2021 campaign go to waste is the even bigger transgression.

Numerous factors come into play when discussing just how badly the Phillies whiffed by winning only 82 games this year despite huge contributions from both Harper and Wheeler. First among these areas is the likelihood of each player to replicate what they did this year, or at least come reasonably close to it. Harper, who turns 29 in a matter of weeks, has both age and history on his side. As insane as his numbers were this year, he has put together seasons like this before, and only a fool would dismiss the possibility that he could do it at least once more in the coming years.

Wheeler, however, will never be as good as he was this year.

This isn’t to say that Wheeler’s numbers will fall off a cliff, as he’s proven himself to be a steady rotation anchor over the course of several years. But he did just deliver a 2.59 ERA, nearly a full run lower than his career mark entering the season. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was even better, clocking in at 2.59 this year after sitting at 3.67 heading into 2021. Essentially, Wheeler cheat-coded the rest of the league this year by striking out more batters than he ever had before while decreasing his walk rate and continuing to suppress the home run ball.

Zack Wheeler will never have another season this good for the Philadelphia Phillies.

These are the hallmarks of a truly dominant starter, one who doesn’t have to rely on his defense to bail him out. But that’s exactly the issue that Wheeler will have to face in 2022 and beyond in front of this woeful Philadelphia Phillies defense if he starts to slip in any area and regress more toward the career means which he was able to outperform in 2021.

Zack Wheeler just led the National League in strikeouts, and all of Major League Baseball in innings pitched. He took the ball for every start and was a true workhorse, avoiding injury even as he was stretched to the limit following last year’s severely shortened baseball season. Do we really all have confidence that Wheeler, who turns 32 during the 2022 season, can log this much work again and avoid any trips to the Injured List?

It is true that Wheeler doesn’t have a ton of innings on his arm for a pitcher of his age. But when the Phillies inked him to a five-year contract in December of 2019, it was obvious that they were paying for his best years upfront and hoping for a graceful decline on the backend. Wheeler’s 2021 season showed no signs of decline whatsoever, but it’s fair to say that the kind of results he delivered this year are the absolute best that the Phillies could have hoped for at any point during his contract. The same could be said for Bryce Harper, but it’s much easier to envision Harper managing to reach these heights again than it is to see Wheeler in serious Cy Young contention, as he was for almost the entirety of this season before wearing out a bit near the end.

A discussion of Wheeler’s 2021 effort wouldn’t be complete without also pointing out that he led the National League in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Not Harper. Or Fernando Tatis. Or Juan Soto. By this metric, Wheeler was essentially the “most valuable” player in the league based on what he delivered for his team. And for anyone confused as to how a pitcher could grade out atop such a category, keep in mind that Wheeler faced 849 hitters this year, a number which is far and away more plate appearances than any individual position player accumulated. And so it was Wheeler who had the greatest number of individual at-bat outcomes within his power than anyone else in baseball this year.

I’d say he delivered tremendous results. I hope Aaron Nola was taking notes.

Looking ahead to next year, the Phillies badly need a Nola bounceback, a healthy Zach Eflin, and continued development from Ranger Suarez so that the rotation as a whole doesn’t slip from where it is at the moment if Wheeler fails to replicate his career year. And so it is imperative that this team goes into next year with a solid group of starters behind Wheeler, as well as a new bullpen (again) which won’t diminish any of the gains made by the rotation. Wheeler, meanwhile, can’t have too much of a dropoff, or else this team could be doomed before 2022 ever gets off the ground for the club.

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Zack Wheeler made the jump to “elite” status for the Philadelphia Phillies this year, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how long he’ll stay there. While he’ll likely remain good to great for a few more years, nobody can bank on him repeating his 2021 output. And that’s the biggest tragedy of this lost Phillies season. How do they manage to finally find a way back to the playoffs if they can’t count on Wheeler to be otherworldly again?