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Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Cy Young or not, Zack Wheeler has had one of the best seasons in Phillies history


Zack Wheeler has had a tremendous 2021 campaign. (Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

He may not win the Cy Young Award, and the Philadelphia Phillies may not go to the postseason. But Zack Wheeler’s 2021 campaign has been one of the finest in the history of the franchise.

Even though it came in a loss, Wheeler’s 32nd start of the season Tuesday was excellent, as he limited the Atlanta Braves to four hits and two runs across seven frames. If the game hadn’t been played under National League rules, the 31-year-old righty may very well have gone deeper into the game, as he had just 93 pitches when Joe Girardi elected to pinch hit for Wheeler down 2-0 in the top of the eighth inning.

Tentatively, Wheeler is scheduled to pitch in Miami this weekend, marking his final start of the regular season. However, given that he’s now thrown 213 1/3 innings in 2021 — a 142 1/3 inning jump from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — it would hardly be a surprise if the Phillies shut Wheeler down if they are eliminated from postseason contention before his next turn in the rotation.

If Tuesday was Wheeler’s closing argument, his final statistics on the season will look like this: 14-10, 2.78 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 1.01 WHIP, three complete games, two complete-game shutouts and a 7.3 fWAR.

There is no such thing as a perfect statistic. WAR might be the closest we have right now, and from here, FanGraphs‘ version of WAR (fWAR) is superior to Baseball Reference‘s version (bWAR) in evaluating pitchers. fWAR is based on the statistic FIP (fielding independent pitching), which attempts to serve as an alternative to ERA that removes any lucky or unlucky events that may happen in the field that are out of a pitcher’s control. bWAR is based on RA9, or runs allowed per nine innings.

In terms of fWAR, only three Phillies pitchers in the last 50 years have had higher marks in a single season than what Wheeler has posted in 2021:

Wheeler passed the 7.1 fWAR that Cliff Lee posted in 2011 with the Phillies, when he finished third in a loaded National League Cy Young Award race. Phillies icon Cole Hamels posted a 5.1 fWAR in 2011, the highest mark of his career. Aaron Nola concluded his 2018 season — when he ultimately finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting himself — with a 5.5 fWAR. Heck, Hall of Famer Roy Halladay “only” had a 6.2 fWAR when he won the National League Cy Young Award in 2010.

Perhaps Wheeler didn’t peak at the right time to edge out Max Scherzer or Corbin Burnes — both of whom are on teams heading to the playoffs — for the National League Cy Young Award, although his 1.47 ERA in five September starts is pretty damn impressive.

Not to mention, Wheeler probably authored the signature moment of the Phillies season when he pitched a two-hit complete-game shutout on Aug. 8 against the New York Mets, helping the Phillies to their eighth straight win on the same day that they retired Halladay’s No. 34.

Girardi spoke glowingly of Wheeler after that moment, and again when discussing his Cy Young Award candidacy Wednesday.

“I think you look at the innings pitched and the amount of pitches he’s thrown from the seventh inning on, [and that shows] how valuable he’s been,” Girardi said. “Sometimes that’s when you give up the runs too. He’s gone deeper than anyone, more consistently. He’s amassed the most innings … he’s been a workhorse … he’s pitched extremely well. That’s my pitch.”

There will be a time to discuss whether the Phillies potentially wasted a Cy Young-caliber season in a year where they weren’t able to reach the postseason. But regardless of the team’s success — or relative lack thereof — Wheeler has had one of the greatest season that a Phillies pitcher has ever put together. He didn’t join the Phillies until his age-30 season, but with his first All-Star season, Wheeler has perhaps put himself on a track to eventually be inducted onto the team’s Wall of Fame.

At the very least, Wheeler figures to toe the rubber when the Phillies begin the 2022 season at Minute Maid Park on March 31, marking the first opening day start of his career.

Destiny Lugardo contributed to this report.

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