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Zack Wheeler's 2021 Success

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With the Phillies having overtaken the Mets for first place in the NL East, there has been a recent clamor pushing Bryce Harper as a potential MVP candidate.

But, at least by our calculations, there’s someone else on the Phillies who has been considerably more valuable than Harper has been.

We’re referring to Zack Wheeler, who shut out the Mets on two hits to complete a three-game sweep this past Sunday. Wheeler leads the NL in the all-encompassing stat, Total Runs, which looks at both a hitter and pitcher’s Runs Created, Defensive Runs Saved, and Baserunning Runs.

Most Total Runs – NL Players

Name Team Total Runs
Zack Wheeler Phillies 102
Jake Cronenworth Padres 98
Trea Turner Dodgers 96
Ryan McMahon Rockies 95
Bryan Reynolds Pirates 95
Freddie Freeman Braves 94
Max Muncy Dodgers 94

Harper, hurt by poor defensive numbers, has 76 Total Runs, which doesn’t even rank in the Top 20 among NL players, and actually ranks third on his own team behind Wheeler and Jean Segura. In fairness to Harper, his hot hitting (an 1.139 OPS in his last 31 games) may vault him up the rankings quickly.

Additionally, Wheeler has vaulted into the No. 5 spot on the World’s No. 1 Starting Pitcher Rankings, a jump of 24 spots from his No. 29 ranking at the start of the season. Wheeler has an MLB-leading six starts with a Game Score of 80 or higher. Compiling a high Game Score consistently over an extended period of time is they key to faring well in the Starting Pitcher Rankings.

World’s No. 1 Starting Pitcher Rankings

Rank Name Team Current Score
1 Jacob deGrom Mets 494.6
2 Gerrit Cole Yankees 483.2
3 Walker Buehler Dodgers 482.4
4 Max Scherzer Dodgers 470.5
5 Zack Wheeler Phillies 469.2
6 Brandon Woodruff Brewers 464.9

Wheeler's run includes shutouts of the Mets and Brewers and a pair of scoreless starts against the Braves. The first of the latter came in his first start of the season. His seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball with 10 strikeouts set the tone for his 2021.

In Wheeler’s win over the Mets, he finished them off with high fastballs, but what helped get him through much of that game was a nasty slider, on which he got 16 strikes on 21 pitches, and 6 outs against no hits and one walk.

Wheeler has increased his usage of the slider from last season by 10 percentage points to 26% and it’s become a much better pitch. In 2020, it got him 9% of his outs. This season, it has gotten him 27%.

What might be most impressive about what Wheeler has done is that he’s done it in front of a bad defense. The Phillies rank last in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, though they actually have a positive Runs Saved total on defensing batted balls when he's on the mound.

Though in Wheeler’s case, his best defense has not been allowing opponents to hit the ball. Wheeler’s increase in strikeout rate from 18% last season to 29% this season is the second-highest in baseball behind Dylan Cease’s nearly 14 percentage-point jump.

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