As the Dodgers head into the off-season, starting pitching is an area the front office will likely look to improve. While they were one of the best units last year, there are many question marks behind Walker Buehler. Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda are a year older, and Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, and Julio Urias are unproven as starters. Combine this with the possible departures of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill, and the Dodgers should be in the market to improve their rotation.
Obviously, every Angeleno would love the Dodgers to sign Gerrit Cole; but given their track record with free agents, it seems unlikely that Andrew Friedman and company shell out a massive multi-year contract.
However, another pitcher on the market, who is more likely to be in the Dodgers’ price range: Zack Wheeler.
Officially as of today, six Mets are no longer Mets: Zack Wheeler, Todd Frazier, Luis Avilan, Brad Brach, Rajai Davis and Rene Rivera.
(Juan Lagares will also become a free agent in the coming days, when the Mets formally decline his $9.5 million option.)
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) October 31, 2019
Wheeler, 29, missed 2015, 2016, and the majority of 2017 with various arm injuries. But, he bounced back the past two years. In 377 innings, he posted a 3.65 ERA with a 3.37 FIP.
While these numbers are impressive, many around the game believe he has an abundance of potential not yet tapped into, very similar to Gerrit Cole before being traded to Houston in 2018. Here’s a look at their similarities:
|Gerrit Cole (2017)||Zack Wheeler (2019)|
|Average Pitch Velocity||92.0 MPH||93.1 MPH|
|Average Spin Rate||2201 RPM||2288 RPM|
|Pitch Mix||Fastball, Slider, Curveball, Changeup, Sinker||Fastball, Slider, Curveball, Changeup, Sinker, Split Finger|
As seen in the table, Cole was a very similar pitcher as Wheeler in terms of repertoire and peripherals. That being said, just like Wheeler is now, he was good, not great. However, after the trade to Houston, considerable changes were made. Spin rate and velocity on all four pitches increased significantly, and he stopped throwing his worst pitch: the sinker.
This is an adjustment that the Dodgers could very well implement with Wheeler, who threw his sinker nearly a third of the time. Hitters sported a .337 wOBA against it, 66 points higher than any other pitch.
Also notable in the graph, Cole’s breaking pitches saw an uptick in usage, to a combined 39%. This could also be translated to Wheeler, who only threw those pitches 30% of the time.
A more modern pitching approach with the Dodgers and their advanced technology should add to Wheeler’s spin rate, just like Cole was able to with Houston. Cole saw his strikeout rate jump nearly 17 points following the trade, and while this improvement will be nearly impossible for Wheeler, it is certainly fathomable that he can get his K% into the 30% range, which would aid his transformation into an elite pitcher. Below is Cole explaining how he was able to add spin, and hence, movement. Both of these changes could be easily applied to Wheeler.
When I asked Cole last summer about his change in spin rate, he explained that Verlander had taught him how to get more “true rotation and hop” on his fastball. He has raised his vertical release point, and the spin axis of his fastball has changed slightly from 222 degrees in 2017 to 216 degrees with the Astros. — via fivethirtyeight.com
As broken down here, the Dodgers should have plenty of money to spend this off-season. By signing Wheeler and modernizing his repertoire, the Dodgers can exploit a market inefficiency. If they successfully create this “mini-Cole” of sorts, they would be getting him for much cheaper than the real thing, allowing them to spend big on another free agent, such as Anthony Rendon.
The key to creating this “mini-Cole” will be to get Wheeler to stop throwing his sinker, and start relying on his breaking pitches. Additionally, adding spin will allow his strikeout rate to soar, leading to better overall numbers. It remains to be seen just how aggressive the Dodgers will be in free agency this year, but assuming the price tag on Cole is too high, Wheeler should be their guy.