Why Zack Wheeler could be the next Gerrit Cole

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Editor's note: This story originally ran on Nov. 22. Zack Wheeler agreed to a five-year deal worth $118 million with the Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 4.

The final image we have of Gerrit Cole's tenure with the Houston Astros was after Game 7 of the World Series, when he was wearing a Scott Boras Corporation cap instead of drinking champagne during a victory celebration.

Still, it was a wonderful two seasons in Houston for Cole, as he shed his previous rep as a talented but inconsistent right-hander to become arguably the best starter in the majors. He went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA and a ridiculous 602 strikeouts in 412⅔ innings with the Astros -- a big improvement over his final two seasons with the Pirates when he went 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 319 innings.

Cole is now a free agent, likely to receive the biggest contract ever for a pitcher. Next up for the Astros, or any other team for that matter: Find Gerrit Cole 2.0.

We have a guy in mind. We'll get to new Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in a moment and why he's an interesting comp for where Cole was two years ago, but let's first do a quick synopsis of how Cole made the leap after his trade to Houston.

Cole was the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in 2011 and had his best season with the Pirates in 2015, when he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. His follow-up seasons were not as impressive, and the Astros traded four players to acquire him -- with a clear idea of how to make Cole better.

The Pirates liked to emphasize two-seam fastballs down in the zone, the better to generate ground balls. The Astros encourage their pitchers -- especially those with good velocity -- to throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone, the better to generate strikeouts. Ditching his sinker wasn't the only change Cole made. He also started throwing his slider and curveball more often -- which also helped produce more strikeouts. Here's his pitch selection percentages with the Pirates compared with those with the Astros:

Pirates, 2016-2017

4-seam fastball: 48.7%
2-seam fastball: 13.7%
Changeup: 8.6%
Curveball: 11.3%
Slider: 17.6%

Astros, 2018-2019
4-seam fastball: 50.9%
2-seam fastball: 4.2%
Changeup: 6.0%
Curveball: 17.3%
Slider: 21.6%

With the Pirates in 2016-17, Cole's four-seam fastball generated a strikeout rate of 20.7%. His two-seamer generated a strikeout rate of just 9.4%. With the Astros, Cole's strikeout rate on the four-seam fastball improved to 39.2%, so it's not just about simply throwing it more often but also locating it better along with the interplay of throwing more breaking balls.

There aren't many pitchers who have Cole-like potential, simply because there are few starting pitchers who can match his velocity. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2019, Cole had the second-highest average fastball velocity at 97.4 mph, behind only Noah Syndergaard. Wheeler was fourth on the list, averaging 97.0 mph.

Wheeler is not a perfect match for Cole. Most notably, he missed all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He went 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA over the past two seasons with the Mets with 374 strikeouts in 377⅔ innings, numbers that line up with Cole's final two seasons in Pittsburgh. Wheeler received a five-year contract worth $23.6 million per season. Teams were interested not just because he has been a quality pitcher for the Mets but because of the expectation that there's some upside the Mets weren't able to extract.

Check out Wheeler's numbers from 2019:

Four-seamer: 918 pitches, .241/.309/.341, 29.4% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 946 pitches: .297/.331/.484, 17.2% strikeout rate

Even though Wheeler's four-seam fastball was the more effective pitch, he threw the two-seamer more often. So now the Phillies might look at those numbers and advise Wheeler to throw his four-seam fastball more often and perhaps unlock some of that upside.

Of course, it is not that simple. You have to break down when Wheeler threw all those pitches. He threw almost an equal amount in hitters' counts -- 201 four-seamers, 194 two-seamers (both were hit hard). The big difference came in pitchers' counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). The results:

Four-seamer: 330 pitches, .151/.160/.258, 52.5% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 363 pitches: .297/.300/.469, 30.5% strikeout rate

Again, it's clear that Wheeler's four-seam fastball was the much better pitch in 2019. While this suggests a repertoire change, à la Cole, it might not be quite so simple. In 2018, Wheeler's two-seamer was the better pitch, at least in terms of damage:

Four-seamer: 1,238 pitches, .249/.327/.357, 23.8% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 427 pitches, .200/.239/.295, 13.8% strikeout rate

Wheeler actually threw his four-seamer much more often in 2018. You wonder if somebody showed him those triple-slash lines and suggested he throw the two-seamer more often -- even though his four-seamer registered a much higher strikeout rate.

The general belief is the Mets' analytics department isn't on par with some other organizations. Wheeler also threw his fastball (both types) 59% of the time in 2019, compared with 54% for Cole. That's only a difference of five fastballs over 100 pitches, but the Phillies' analytics department might suggest a few more curveballs -- Wheeler has a very good one with a strikeout rate of 37%, but he actually threw his slider (strikeout rate of 22.8%) twice as often.

Look, there are no guarantees here. Wheeler's mechanics aren't always fluid or consistent, and pitching greatness is often as much about intuitive feel and precise command as it is pure stuff. Still, it will be fascinating to see what Wheeler might do with another team -- and the Phillies are giving him $118 million to find out.


Four other potential Gerrit Cole 2.0s:

Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers: He was having an excellent first full season in the Milwaukee rotation until he suffered an oblique injury in late July. Still, he averages 96 mph with his fastball and struck out 143 in 121⅔ innings. He generates a huge number of whiffs with his four-seam fastball (41.7%), yet he threw it 38% of the time compared with 26% for his two-seamer (which generated a 21% K rate).

Frankie Montas, Oakland Athletics: He had a 2.70 ERA through 15 starts when he was suspended for 80 games for a positive PED test. He came back for one final start and allowed one run in six innings. In his breakout half-season, Montas averaged 97.1 mph on his fastball. His wipeout pitches are a slider and a splitter, but he threw his two-seamer twice as often as his four-seamer even though his four-seamer had a 22% strikeout rate compared with 11.3% for the two-seamer.

Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies: He averages 96.1 mph with his fastball, and although he actually has a lower career ERA at Coors Field than on the road, all he might need to develop into an ace is a different home park. Gray is basically a fastball/slider guy, mixing in some curveballs against lefties, but southpaws pound his fastball (.989 OPS in 2019). Maybe he needs to add a two-seamer, splitter or changeup.

Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins: The Marlins' All-Star rep in 2019, Alcantara averaged 95.9 mph with his fastball and also throws a hard sinker that he threw almost as often. Neither is a big swing-and-miss offering, however, and his sinker generated just a 10.3% strikeout rate (although not a ton of hard contact). There's something here, and although he might never be a big strikeout guy, there is some upside.