Right and Wrong: Zack Wheeler’s 2021 Fantasy Outlook
Welcome back to another article! We look to be set for some great championship series featuring the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the Atlanta Braves, and the Tampa Bay Rays versus the Houston Astros! While it’s been a treat watching nearly every playoff game that I possibly can so far, I’m very excited to be looking ahead to next season. In a season in which a global pandemic was occurring and we only had 60 games of data, it is incredibly hard to make assessments about players and their performances, and that includes Zack Wheeler, who I’ll be looking at in this article.
As with many sports, there are many factors that come into play when looking at how a player performed during a particular season. Players may be statistically slow starters, not play well in certain weather, have problems with certain teams that they continued to face in the re-alignment, and more. What a player has done in their career before 2020 needs to be taken into consideration for these exact reasons.
This offseason, I’ll be doing a series of articles looking at what went right, what went wrong, and the overall 2021 outlook for certain players. I can only take into account the data that has been given and use that to best assess what to expect from them next season. This should be fun! Let’s dive into our next player in this series: Zack Wheeler.
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What Went Right for Zack Wheeler in 2020
Drastically Decreased Launch Angle
As a pitcher, putting the ball on the ground is always a good thing. When a pitcher decreases the launch angle of a ball being hit off them, it starts finding the dirt more and more often. That is exactly what happened this year with Zack Wheeler. Wheeler had a career-best 3.8-degree launch angle or almost nine full degrees lower than the year before. This led to three home runs the entire season off of Wheeler as a result and a vastly increased ground-ball percentage of nearly 56% (Up 12% from 2019). If the decreased launch angle is for real, his limitation of home runs and increased ground-ball rate will be very beneficial to his fantasy value.
Limited Harder Contact
Another aspect of Wheeler’s game that seems to have progressed is his ability to limit hard contact. His already elite average exit velocity got EVEN BETTER this year and decreased 1.3 mph to get into the top-10 percentile in the league. His sweet spot % shot down four percent and his xSLG from .405 to .350. Getting weak contact is another great part of a pitcher’s success and Wheeler took a great step in doing that this year.
Much Improved Sinker
When Wheeler wasn’t throwing fastballs 42% of the time, this was his most preferred secondary pitch at just under 24%. His approximate 23.7% usage of his sinker was down 5.3% from his 29% usage in 2019. The result? A 68 point decrease in batting average points against it, a SLG% that dropped from .488 to .270, and a severely decreased wOBA and exit velocity. Wheeler pulling back the usage of this pitch allowed him to keep hitters off balance more than in 2019 and it showed with the improvement of his top secondary pitch. This is something that Wheeler should look to consider and continue tinkering with in 2021.
What Went Wrong
Increased Fastball Usage
As Wheeler decreased his sinker usage, the result was increasing usage of his fastball. He jumped his four-seamer usage from 30% in 2019 to 42% in 2020. The impact of this was not encouraging. His expected batting average went from .236 to .290, xSLG from .357 to .399, and xwOBA from .293 to .315. When trying to pinpoint exactly why this was, we can rule out a few factors. One big factor we look at is if the pitcher’s velocity is down. That was not the case as he maintained his nearly 97 mph velocity from 2019.
Another would be his spin rate. Nope as it remained nearly identical to last year. His exit velocity off the pitch was also similar. When it comes down to it, his fastball has velocity but seemed to fool hitters less the more they saw it this year. The whiff percentage and put away percentage both went down 7% from 2019 with the increase in usage. Wheeler might need to decrease the use of his fastball as he did with the sinker to remain effective with this pitch. Wheeler throws five pitches so upping the usage of another to mix up more with his fastball could be the fix.
Strikeout Percentage Dips
For the super invested fantasy baseball fan, this was the one problem in Zack Wheeler’s 2020 game we were already familiar with. His strikeout percentage dipped nearly 5% from 23.6 to 18.4%. This remains interesting as his swinging strike rate stayed very similar at just under 11%. Hitters did increase their Z-swing 5% this year which could have led to more balls in play as with Z-swing, that means the ball is in the strike zone when the hitters attempt their swings.
Overall when looking at Wheeler’s pitches and where they located in the strike zone, he tended to stay low when going away from his fastball, which could be a reason for the increased GB%. With a K/9 dipping to under seven this year, it will be important for fantasy managers to consider if that is acceptable for them when drafting Wheeler, as he had always been a K per inning guy for most of his career. It was a small sample size as we said in the opener of this article though, so maybe a chance to grab Wheeler at more of a discount if you believe he’ll go back to what he was with his K’s in 2019. Keep an eye on this throughout the off-season.
ERA a Mirage?
When looking at Zack Wheeler’s ERA, he finished with a 2.92 ERA. That is very good. However, sometimes we like to look at expected numbers to determine if some statistics are showing that the player overperformed or underperformed. In this case, Wheeler’s 2.92 was vastly an overperformance, as his xERA was at 3.64 or over a half a run higher. Wheeler has been a mid-3’s ERA pitcher each of the previous 2 seasons and his data seems to show that. I would expect more of this type of pitcher when you draft him and not the under 3 ERA he gave this year.
Outlook for 2021
At this point, we seem to somewhat know who Zack Wheeler is. Wheeler is going to be a solid #3 or #4 starter in your pitching rotation that should provide a solid amount of starts (Has had at least 29 starts in 3 of the last 4 seasons before COVID-shortened 2020), innings pitched, and should get you close to a strikeout per nine. A mid 3’s ERA is what should be expected as long as his velocity stays 96-97 and he stays consistent with how he’s approached hitters and the pitch mixes he uses.
Wheeler’s walk rate has declined in each of his big league seasons and always seems to limit harder contact to hitters better than the average pitcher. I’m all a go for drafting Wheeler and would expect similar production to what we’ve seen from him before, as most of his analytics match up favorably to his 2018 and 2019. Draft his mid-rotation arm comfortably in your 2021 drafts.
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