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Zack Wheeler Signs with Philadelphia Phillies: Fantasy Baseball Impact

by Carmen Maiorano | @carmsclubhouse | Featured Writer
Dec 5, 2019

Zack Wheeler might be going to a new team, but he’s staying in the NL East.

We received news of our first high-profile pitcher signing on Wednesday when Zack Wheeler signed a five-year, $118M deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Wheeler was one of several second-tier pitchers available in free agency, and he appeared to be the most highly sought after pitcher of that tier.

Unfortunately, this move does not make Wheeler’s fantasy stock any more enticing. Similar to how we determined with hitters, pitchers have four main variables that will impact their fantasy value after signing with a new team:

  1. Change in home ballpark.
  2. Change in team defense.
  3. The combination of offensive environments and hitters that he will face in his division.
  4. The new team’s approach to pitching and pitching infrastructure.

Let’s figure out what plays well for Wheeler, and what could potentially obstruct him from reaching that next tier of top-30 starter status.

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Change in Venue

Wheeler moves from Citi Field in Queens to Citizens Bank Ballpark (“CBP”) in Philadelphia. CBP has the perception of being a hitter’s park, and that perception holds up, especially when comparing the venue to Citi Field. Over the past three years, CBP has been an above-average hitter’s park, per FanGraphs, rating as three percent above the league average. On the other end of the spectrum, Citi Field was eight percent below average. When looking at just the past year with the rabbit ball, that gap between the two parks becomes even wider. ESPN also agrees, with an even wider gap. Other reports in the industry show Citi Field as being a better place to hit home runs, so we do not want to overestimate the change in ballpark.

As a result of the change in his home park, Wheeler’s HR/FB rate of 10.9 percent is likely to go up for his new team. Nothing too severe, but a two percentage point increase wouldn’t surprise me.

Team Defense

While defensive metrics are not fully developed yet, the Phillies’ fielding is significantly better than the Mets’, no matter which way you slice it. The Phillies were notably porous in the field in 2018, but that was corrected in 2019, ranking as the top team in FanGraph’s defense metric. The Phillies also were slightly better than the Mets in defensive efficiency, and much better in defensive runs saved, according to Baseball Reference. Losing Cesar Hernandez at the keystone may hurt the defense a bit, but non-tendering the less slick-fielding Maikel Franco mitigates that loss.

Wheeler’s groundball percentage has been steadily decreasing since 2014, to the point where we cannot classify Wheeler as a groundball pitcher. However, the team defense behind him should suggest a lower BABIP in 2020.

Division and Offensive Environments

Wheeler stays in the NL East, which is good and bad. Wheeler will know his opposition well, but he probably does not need to be reminded about how poorly he pitched against the Washington Nationals in 2019. Over five starts against them, Wheeler allowed 21 earned runs in 27 and 2/3 innings. He did strike out 24 Nationals, but that 6.95 ERA is ugly. As much as we like to make projections and use advanced analytics, we also have to weigh the mentality of a player. I think that Wheeler may remember those performances when he faces the Nationals in 2020.

The Mets had a much better offense than the Phillies last year, mainly due to making more frequent and harder contact. One would imagine that with a full year from Andrew McCutchen and a potential high-profile free-agent acquisition (Josh Donaldson, perhaps?) that the Phillies’ offense would rebound from being nine percent below league average. From a fantasy point of view, Wheeler loses some value due to the change in teams, but this variable ranks as the least important factor to consider in any change in his fantasy stock.

Pitching Infrastructure

This is anybody’s guess. Former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young‘s failures have been well-documented. Joe Girardi and new pitching coach Bryan Price will look to improve upon the Phillies’ lack of successful pitching. However, I’m not sure they will be able to. When I think of Phillies pitching, I think of:

  • Injuries: Jake Arrieta, David Robertson, and Seranthony Dominguez were all injured last year. This may be a coincidence, but the Phillies could also lack programs to sustain their pitchers.
  • Ineffectiveness: Remember when Nick Pivetta was a sleeper in 2019? That’s difficult to imagine going into 2020. Aaron Nola has had two consecutive years in which he has fallen off a cliff in September (6.51 ERA over 27+ innings this past September). Vince Velasquez has been a rollercoaster his entire Phillies career (4.67 career ERA). Wilson Ramos is also a poor pitch framer, ranking 97th out of 113 catchers in 2019 per Baseball Prospectus.

This is not the team I want entrusted to utilize Wheeler’s remarkable fastball velocity and above-average spin rate on both that fastball and curveball. Hopefully, the Phillies will ditch Wheeler’s sinker, given that it garnered a .347 wOBA and .337 xwOBA last year while using it 30 percent of the time. By throwing more fastballs up in the zone and increasing the usage on his slider and curveball, he could stave off likely increases in HR/FB rates while increasing his strikeout rate.

My Projection

Based on the four factors above, I’m not expecting Wheeler to make the leap into top-tier starter status in 2020. However, I think he can still be a top-30 pitcher, and he will likely have a season between the midpoint of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. With that said, I am much higher on Wheeler than the publicly available projections:

IPs W K ERA WHIP K-BB
My Projection 185 13 184 3.73 1.22 17.5%
Depth Charts 184 11 177 4.26 1.26 N/A
Steamer 184 11 177 4.26 1.26 15.9%

I am higher than the public projections in all categories, largely due to believing that his strikeout and walk rates will be consistent, or slightly improve, from the last two years. Wheeler’s ERA of 3.96 and his FIP of 3.48 last year suggest that he can get that ERA well below four. Between early NFBC drafts and the Too Early Mock Drafts conducted by Justin Mason, Wheeler is centralized around pick 125, approximately the 40th starting pitcher off the board. If that value holds going into March, I will be all over it, especially in Quality Start leagues.

More Fantasy Baseball Impacts from Recent Transactions:

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and follow him @cmaiorano3.

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