FanGraphs ranked Zack Wheeler in their list of Top-Five 2020 free-agent starting pitchers. Should the Blue Jays pursue him?
In a previous article, I argued that the Blue Jays should have as many irons (contract discussions) in the fire (free agent pool) as possible. This tactic would reduce the risk of missing out on all of the attractive 2020 free agent starters. In the same piece, I examined Michael Pineda’s Blue Jays candidacy. Zack Wheeler, as evidenced by his #4 FanGraphs ranking among free-agent starting pitchers, is a higher-tier target compared to Pineda (ranked #10).
Note that this article is not about if the Blue Jays will sign Wheeler; it is a piece that examines whether the Blue Jays should sign Wheeler and, if so, what would a reasonable contract look like.
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Wheeler was drafted sixth overall in the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft by the San Francisco Giants. On July 28, 2011, he was traded by the Giants to the New York Mets in exchange for Carlos Beltran and cash. He made his MLB debut in 2013 at the age of 23.
After the 2014 season, Wheeler was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament; he underwent Tommy John surgery in March, 2015 and missed both the 2015 and 2016 MLB seasons. Wheeler returned in 2017 and pitched 86 innings. His 2017 percentile rank in ERA, FIP, and SIERA was 26th, 27th, and 48th, respectively. Per FanGraphs, Wheeler’s average fastball velocity in 2017 was 95.4 mph, which was a tick lower than 2014’s 96.2 but equal to 2013’s mark. In 2018 and 2019, the average velocity on his fastball was 96.5 and 97.0, respectively. In 2017, Wheeler was shut down for the balance of the season after a July 22 start and subsequently missed 70 days; in 2019, he missed 15 days with a shoulder ailment.
After the conclusion of the 2019 post-season, the Mets made a $17.8 million Qualifying Offer to Wheeler, which he declined to accept. If he does not re-sign with the Mets, his signing has some ramifications for his new team.
Pitch and batted ball profile
Brooks Baseball describes the 2019 Wheeler as follows:
"His fourseam fastball is blazing fast, has some natural sinking action, results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers and has slight armside run. His slider is thrown extremely hard, has less than expected depth and has primarily 12-6 movement. His curve has a sharp downward bite and is slightly harder than usual. His change is thrown extremely hard. His splitter is thrown extremely hard, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ splitters and has slight armside fade."
Table 1 shows that Wheeler is slightly better than average in terms of Barrels%. Hard Hit%, and Chase%; he is pretty well average in respect of GB%, FB%, LD%, and PU%.
Wheeler bounced back in 2018 and 2019 from his 2017 struggles. In 2018, he generated a 4.2 fWAR in 182 innings (92nd percentile); he followed that up with 195 innings and a 4.7 fWAR (92nd percentile). For the 2018-2019 period, Wheeler’s fWAR was 8.9, which is 94th percentile.
Table 2 illustrates some statistics of note from the 2019 and 2018 seasons. The highlights are as follows:
- Wheeler was not lower than 85th percentile in HR/9;
- His K%-BB% was 72nd and 70th in 2018 and 2019, respectively;
- Wheeler’s relative ERA ranking declined from 2018’s 84th percentile to 68th last season;
- This decline is consistent with the higher Expected Weighted On-Base Average (“xwOBA”) in 2019 (0.298) versus 2018’s 0.278; and
- In both 2018 and 2019, his SIERA was 73rd percentile.
According to FanGraphs 2018 park factors for home runs (2019 data is not available yet), the park factor for the Mets was 97 and 102 at Rogers Centre; the league average park factor is set at 100. The Rogers Centre produces 4% more home runs than the league average park (halved so 104 becomes 102 in 81 games). At the Mets venue, home runs were 6% lower than they would be at the league average park.
There are quantifiable differences pitching to National League East teams compared to American League East teams. In 2019, NL East teams (ex-New York), hit 841 home runs; AL East teams (ex-Toronto) hit 981 home runs (17% more). In terms of wRC+, these NL East teams produced a 94 mark; the AL East teams noted generated a 103 wRC+.
In 2019, the average ERA, FIP, and SIERA for AL starters was 4.76, 4.63, and 4.59, respectively. The comparable NL stats are 4.33, 4.39, and 4.50, respectively.
Given the noted park, division, and league factors, we should expect Wheeler to have higher HR/9, ERA, FIP, and SIERA numbers as an AL starter compared to his NL career (all things being equal).
Why sign Wheeler now?
In short, the Blue Jays do not have impactful, starting pitchers on the MLB roster. There is a wave of very promising pitching prospects yet to arrive, including the likes of Nate Pearson, Simeon Woods Richardson, and Eric Pardinho. However, those pitchers may or may not turn out to be as good as some project. Even if Pearson et al do reach their respective ceilings, it is highly unlikely that they will be key contributors in 2020 or in 2021 (Pearson may prove that claim incorrect). Accordingly, given the current need to improve starting pitching, Wheeler would be a good acquisition.
The other reason to act now is that the Blue Jays cannot be sure that all desirable, projected 2021 free agents will be available. In other words, a Zack Wheeler-type pitcher may not be available in 2021. It is better for the Blue Jays to sign a 2020 free-agent to a 4-year contract a season too soon than to miss out in 2021. For a partial list of 2021 free agent pitchers, see this article.
Wheeler is not likely to be an ace, despite the excellent fWARs posted in 2018 and 2019, but he would upgrade the current starting rotation. I view him as a good #2 starter who can slot in behind Pearson in 2021-2023. Pearson-Wheeler could be a very good front-of-the-rotation tandem.
The contract analysis has three steps:
- Determine a non-Blue Jays specific contract value for Wheeler
- Address Blue Jays-specific issues
- Evaluate compensation draft pick and the reduction of international signing bonus pool money (“Bonus Pool”) ramifications
For a detailed analysis of the three steps noted, please refer to Schedule A.
A summary of these steps is as follows:
- Before considering Steps 2 or 3, a rational, non-Blue Jays specific contract for Wheeler would be a 4-year, $68 million deal (see Table 3)
- Assuming that the Blue Jays have to pay a 20%-premium to attract free agents (taxes and other factors), a 4-year, $81.6 million contract would be reasonable
- Alternatively, a 5-year, $90 million contract would be sound
- The estimated dollar value of the forfeited draft pick is $6.6 million
- The dollar value of the Bonus Pool reduction is approximately $3 million
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other reasonable contract values; call it a zone of reasonableness. There is not a precise number for a contract; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli. For example, my upper-end for a 4-year deal for Wheeler would be a $100-million. I could justify that with a projected 10.6 fWAR over that term. On a 5-year term, I think I could live with $110 million or the equivalent of an estimated 11.5 fWAR over 5 seasons (11.5 x 8 MM x 1.2).
The last word
Zack Wheeler is not in the top-tier of 2020 free agent starters; that place is occupied by Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Wheeler is in the next group that includes Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel. He is a free agent worth pursuing given the Blue Jays immediate need to improve the starting rotation. Wheeler would also fit in nicely when Pearson et al (hopefully) become impact starting pitchers.