Zack Wheeler
Gerrit Cole? No thanks. Stephen Strasburg? NOPE. Zack Wheeler is the free agent starter that you should want. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

This offseason is littered with high profile starting pitchers. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are the two big fish on the free agent market. The market also includes Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Wheeler. The latter stands out above the rest, or at least. There is no question that Zack Wheeler is the free agent starter that teams should really be coveting this offseason.

Gerrit Cole is going to smash the pitching market. He will likely get a contract in the $40 million per year range. Here’s my question: How good is Gerrit Cole? Was he $40 good in Pittsburgh? A 4.26 ERA suggests otherwise. That was two years ago. Are you getting that guy or that guy in Houston? I’ll bet your information isn’t as good as what Houston has. They saved Justin Verlander’s career. I’m not sure anyone knows for sure.

Let me also say this. Screw Gerrit Cole. Anybody who rocks a Scott Boras hat 5 minutes after losing Game 7 of the World Series doesn’t belong on my team. Cole looked more worried about getting his money than he did about winning a World Series. I don’t want guys like that on my team. These are starters that have won World Series in the past: Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer are the three most notable starters on the last three World Champs. All of them would jump in front of a bullet to win a championship. Not Gerrit Cole. He just wants to wear his Scott Boras hat, refuse to answer questions, and just collect his paycheck. I don’t want guys like that on my team. You better be careful about handing out $300 million dollars. You go ahead and pay someone who has other priorities. I like guys that actually care about winning.

I like Stephen Strasburg but he’s also going to get a hefty check. He also has durability issues. This year Strasburg was healthy. The previous 4 years in a row, he failed to make 30 starts in any year. I’d be nervous about committing high dollars to someone with durability issues. Hyun-Jin Ryu is older than the rest of the bunch. Mad Bum is coming off a sloppy down year. Add it all up and Wheeler looks like the most attractive buy on the market.

Just looking at Wheeler’s 3.96 ERA can be misleading. The Georgia native had a 4.1 WAR this year which shows he pitched much better than his ERA would indicate. Wheeler, 29, has made 60 starts the past two years showing he is durable again. Wheeler doesn’t walk people. His control has improved. A 2.3 BB/9 is more than respectable. A 9 K/9 rate also works for me. Wheeler also had a lower home run rate than Cole this past year. Am I starting to sell you?

Let’s also not forget about the fact that the Mets are a mess. Players go there to die. The Mets changed pitching and bullpen coaches midseason. That’s the Mets being the Mets. Did anyone pitch to expectations in New York outside of Jacob deGrom? Edwin Diaz struggled. That’s an understatement. So did Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and their entire bullpen. Marcus Stroman fell off a cliff when the Mets acquired him. Wheeler (outside of deGrom) was the only reliable arm they had all year. Why are we not factoring in the Mets here? Get Wheeler away from the Mets and the magic starts to happen.

I understand that it’s kind of a silly excuse but it’s also a real thing. It goes beyond the Mets being cursed. Wheeler’s fielding independent pitching suggests he was much better in 2018 than his ERA would indicate. Wheeler’s FIP number of 3.48 looks a hell of a lot better. The Mets were brutal defensively. Pete Alonso was a negative defender. Robinson Cano didn’t bother getting to balls two steps away in any direction. Jeff McNeil was bad in any spot that wasn’t third. Say the same for JD Davis. The Mets don’t have a real center fielder and far too many corner outfielders. Wilson Ramos is arguably the worst pitch framer in baseball.

Zack Wheeler will be even better with a real defense behind him. Ramos being behind the plate is a real thing. There’s no other way to quantify it. Ramos was atrocious behind the plate and cost his team strikes. Pitchers also complained about him and preferred throwing to Tomas Nido. It’s a real thing. Wheeler dealt with a lot of circumstances that weren’t his fault and should improve on another team.

Did I mention that Wheeler’s stuff is filthy? There was a reason why he was a first round pick. 6-foot-4 body with a true five pitch mix. That includes a 97 MPH heater, 91 MPH slider, 81 MPH 12-6 curveball, 89 MPH change, and 89 MPH splitter. When I watch Zack Wheeler pitch, my eyes tell me he’s an ace. He doesn’t pitch like one consistently. I wanted to know why. What I found supports what my eyes were seeing. Let me explain.

I’ll bet on a guy that has that kind of stuff. I think there’s a higher K rate that will come out. Here’s why. Wheeler struck out 50% of batters who got behind in the count 0-2 against him and 31.5% after getting ahead 0-1. Both of those numbers are around league average. Given Wheeler’s pitch arsenal, he should be much better than that. That tells me his pitch selection could be better utilized. The data supports that theory.

With two strikes, Zack Wheeler threw a fastball 55.9% of the time. The rest of the league utilizes the fastball far less in those counts. In fact, Wheeler uses his fastball in almost every count more than the rest of the league. When you have a pitch repertoire like that, he should be using his other pitches more frequently. Something the Mets should have been preaching but most likely weren’t. Wheeler is really good at getting ahead of the count. He’s not good at finishing off hitters. With the stuff he has, that doesn’t make a ton of sense. One word explains this. METS.

Below I’m going to show two graphics. The first being fastball location with two strikes. The second being slider location with two strikes.

Zack Wheeler

Not great. A lot of pitches in the middle of the zone. Why was he using a pitch so often that was getting crushed while he’s ahead of the count? Mets… Look maybe Wheeler doesn’t have the high, high fastball in him. I also don’t think we know the answer. More of a crucial focus getting the fastball out of the zone and using it less frequently would pay dividends.

Now let’s look at the two strike slider. A pitch he’s not throwing enough.

God damn perfect. So why wasn’t he throwing this more often? A 91 MPH slider with perfect location? Mets… Only one pitcher throws a harder slider than Zack Wheeler. That’s Jacob deGrom. When you think about it, Wheeler is pretty similar to deGrom. He just doesn’t put hitters away at the same rate. What if he did? That what IF is the difference between what Wheeler has been and a true number one starter. Something that is absolutely capable.

Wheeler is a much better pitcher than the initial numbers indicate. There’s an ace hidden in there somewhere. A lucky team that knows what they’re doing is going to get that out of him. When that happens, Wheeler is the steal of the offseason. He’s not going to cost what the top end guys will but has the same talent that they do. Zack Wheeler is the free agent starter that you want this offseason.