Could This Be the Year Zack Wheeler Wins His Cy Young?

Philadelphia Phillies ace Zack Wheeler is in Cy Young form early this season. Could 2024 finally be his big year?

Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres in game one of the National League Championship Series at PETCO Park.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 18: Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres in game one of the National League Championship Series at PETCO Park on October 18, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

We all know someone who accuses baseball players of resting on their laurels after landing big paydays. Zack Wheeler has something to say to that cynic in your life.

Wheeler signed his first nine-figure deal before the 2020 campaign. The next four seasons were the best of his career. Over 101 starts, the Philadelphia Phillies ace was arguably the most valuable pitcher in baseball.

The Phillies rewarded Wheeler with an even more lucrative contract extension this past winter. The new deal runs through his age-37 season. During a press conference announcing the extension, the right-hander hinted he might be ready to hang up his hat when his next contract wraps up.

Yet despite all that, Wheeler isn’t letting his foot off the gas. Not even a little. Through three appearances, he’s off to the finest start of his career. For a pitcher with his talent and track record, that’s really saying something.

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Wheeler’s First Three Starts of the Season Over the Years

via FanGraphs

This season, Wheeler went at least six innings deep in each of his first three starts for the first time in his career. He tied his previous career high with 20 strikeouts over his first three games. As if that weren’t enough, he walked just two batters and gave up only four earned runs. Never before has he been so dominant over his first three starts.

Unsurprisingly, Wheeler has been one of the best pitchers in the game this year. He leads the league in FanGraphs WAR. His 20 strikeouts are tied for third in the NL and sixth in baseball. Only two NL pitchers have thrown more innings, and one of them, Tyler Glasnow, got a head start in the Seoul Series.

The underlying metrics love Wheeler just as much – no surprise there, either. He ranks second among qualified NL pitchers in FIP and xFIP, third in SIERA, and fourth in xERA. He is the only one to rank among the top five in all four metrics.

The pitch modeling systems PitchingBot and Stuff+ are equally impressed with his arsenal. He ranks second among qualified NL starters in botERA and Pitching+.

Zack Wheeler Is in Cy Young Form

via FanGraphs

Three starts and 19 innings are a fraction of a full MLB season. Yet, when it comes to Wheeler, we aren’t just working with a small sample size. We know he’s genuinely this good.

This is the 50th three-start span of his career in which Wheeler has posted an ERA of 2.00 or lower. It’s the 79th time he has gone at least six innings in three straight starts. Even better, it’s the 98th time he has notched at least 20 strikeouts in three consecutive outings, and the 22nd time he has done so with two or fewer walks.

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To put it all together, this marks the seventh time Wheeler has gone at least 19 innings with 20-plus strikeouts, two or fewer walks, and an ERA below 2.00 in a three-start span.

Zack Wheeler’s Best Three-Start Spans

via Stathead Baseball

He might be off to the strongest start of his career, but at the same time, Wheeler has done this before and he can do it again. There is absolutely no writing this off as a fluke.

Zack Wheeler has been one of the premier pitchers in the game, year in and year out. It’s as simple as that.

And yet… Despite all his success, Wheeler has never won the game’s highest pitching honor. He has led the league in innings, strikeouts, and all three kinds of WAR, but he has never won the Cy Young.

Wheeler earned a lone fifth-place vote in 2020. He earned votes on half the ballots in 2023, though none higher than third place. He came the closest in 2021, finishing just 10 points behind winner Corbin Burnes. Wheeler and Burnes each earned 12 first-place votes, but Burnes was named second on more ballots.

Could this finally be Wheeler’s year?

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Corbin Burnes remains a strong Cy Young candidate, but he’s pitching in the American League this season. Last year’s winner, Blake Snell, is off to a slow start after a long offseason on the free agent market. The presumptive favorite entering the season, Spencer Strider, is likely out for the year with a UCL injury.

Plenty of aces remain in the National League – Logan Webb, Zac Gallen, and Tyler Glasnow come to mind – but none is as proven as Wheeler. Nor are any of them off to quite as hot of a start.

Now in his age-34 season, one might have thought Zack Wheeler’s Cy Young window was closing behind him. However, the Phillies are paying him like an ace for a reason. Wheeler is the best pitcher in baseball, and it’s about time he had the hardware to prove it.