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Dodgers: Looking at Free Agent Zack Wheeler as a Backup Plan to Cole

This guy could be right up the Dodgers wheel house…

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: Pitcher Zack Wheeler #45 of the New York Mets in action against the Los Angeles Dodgers during of a game at Citi Field on September 15, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

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.

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)
K% 23.1% 23.6%
BB% 6.5% 6.0%
xFIP 3.81 4.06
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. 

Source: BaseballSavant

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.

Written by Wyatt Asher

17 Comments

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  1. The Dodgers need another elite arm since Kershaw is no longer in the category. Cole should have been a Dodger from the Pirates. Anywho, I have to admit that Cole, Beuhler, Kershaw seems like a very good 3. Never going to happen, so take Wheeler or make a trade with New York for Thor, or get Kluber out of Cleveland. Doesn’t everyone want out of Cleveland??? Such a miserable place.

  2. Just because they have the money doesn’t mean they’re going to spend it. Not happening. Its going to be another boring winter just like the all star break. They have the team, just not the manager. FIRE DAVE ROBERTS!

  3. If the Dodgers don’t get him Houston will. Forget Cole and Boras – if Cole was sign-able Houston would do it. Cole is going to cripple a team for years with his demands. Wheeler is the guy and the Dodgers should get him.

  4. There is no doubt the Front Office is going all in 2020 to Win it All. Either they get Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg or Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler.

    • You’re being sarcastic right?
      No doubt the FO is going all in?
      None of those pitchers will be wearing a Dodger uniform

    • And why will 2020 be any different that the preceding seven years of weak division titles? What is you inside info on this?

      • You beat me to the punch, AZUL!!!!! You are exactly right on your above post. I would be greatly surprised if the Dodgers pony up for Cole; we are a monied team that refuses to spend the money. Kershaw cannot be counted on consistently to deliver the big game. Maeda is best in the BP. Kelly defies comment at this stage, and so does Jansen. An interesting Hot Stove season awaits us. Go Blue!!!!

  5. Since the Dodgers couldn’t see the “upside” of either Verlander or Cole, why would you assume they would see “upside” with Wheeler? Clearly the Astros have something going here when if comes to reclaiming pitchers (Morton was another one), Wheeler should go there. If he comes to the Dodgers he will be just another “pretty good, frequently injured” arm. We already have enough of those. If we can’t get either Cole or Strasburg, there really isn’t anyone out there who would make enough of a difference. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no indication that the bats won’t go quiet when it matters in 2020, just like they have in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. You can’t win if you don’t score.

  6. Friedman will forever be a bargain hunter. Hopefully his skin-flint ways will eventually cost him his job. If the team wasn’t making money hand over fist then I could understand being frugal. But come on, they outdraw everyone in baseball at home, and are usually one or two on the road.

  7. We can’t sign Wheeler… Pitchers break!

    Really though, this could be a nice, CHEAP, signing. Why couldn’t they do the same thing to Stripling who has been stopped and started so many times he probably feels like a yo yo. That’s exactly why he needs a change of scenery because he will never become anything with the Dodgers. Wheeler might be the same guy and might do better but his volume of effort so far doesn’t say that. Cole always was one pitch a way from blowing up people but never got the support he needed in Pittsburgh. Well he has it in spades in Houston and will not go to a team who does not have the ability to support him with runs. The Dodgers could be that team, but without a 100% gamer like Anthony Rendon, they will never be that team in the playoffs. They don’t have one guy who can regularly swing for the fences but settle for a single when the needs arise. Justin Turner used to be that guy but once a guy hits 35, the skills just can’t be expected to be there in every at bat, which we saw this year with Turner striking out more than we have ever seen in his time in LA.

  8. To the Front Office and Andrew Friedman:

    We’ve all have waited long enough as fans to win a World series Championship. This coming offseason,the Dodgers have money under the cap, approx 45 million, a strong farm system to make trades,drawing nearly 4 million fans, a lucrative TV deal which equates into one the highest revenue streams in all of baseball. There are no more excuses for signing at least one of the big FA,Rendon,Cole or Strassburg. There are no excuses and the only excuse is not getting it done.I personally would sign Rendon for the much needed right hand bat to balance the lineup with a high per year and shorter term in years.. A secondary move would be to acquire Wheeler. I watch Met games if the Dodgers are not on and he has one of the best fastballs in baseball. With working with new pitching coach Prior, he could develop into something special .With a loaded talented farm system and regulars like Pederson,Stripling, Barnes and Kiki or Taylor,the Dodgers could trade and acquire much needed bullpen help. Your going to lose an important fan base if you bring back the same cast of characters and make no MAJOR changes.

  9. Didn’t someone in the Dodgers org say that Greinke was a risk signing more than 4 years? Why are these journalists afraid to hold the FO accountable for their poor evaluations of these star players? The Dodgers have enough guys in the rotation every year to “Get through” the innings of a 162 game season. But that’s all they seem to care about. Why don’t the Dodgers do like “Any” org that wants to win the championship?Instead of looking to build a team that will win the division, why not build one to win the title? Like build a team Player for player to beat let’s say ‘The Astro’s, or better yet, the Nationals”. The ONLY way this team will ever win, is to look at the TOP staff’s that are built to beat the champion. Look at our lineup : we have No lead off hitter that hits for avg and can steal a base Nats = Turner, Stro’s = Springer. 2 hitter we had Seager. on and on… The Nats had power, avg. speed and players that could hit and run, bunt etc. The Dodgers can’t/won’t play winning baseball. They just seem to swing for the bleachers and that is like a game of roulette. The Dodgers are either extremely arrogant in their perception of judging their own talent compared to others, or they are inept and live in denial of their idealism about how they play the game. I say a little of both. They need to look at themselves in the mirror and realize they need to builld a team that can beat this Nationals, and Yankees Astro’s teams next year. Because you can bet your butt they aren’t going to be sitting on their hands.

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