PHILADELPHIA — Zach Wheeler’s velocity was down in Game 2 of the World Series, and Houston was hitting it hard.
On Saturday, the more rested right-hander will be ready to pitch at Minute Maid Park, and the rest of the streak will depend in part on his arm.
When Monday’s rainy Game 3 pushed things back, the Phillies jumped at the chance to get two extra days of rest for 2021 National League second baseman Cy Young. Phyllis hopes to see what effect this will have on his speed.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves with how well he’s pitched, not just this season, but his entire career with that extra day,” catcher JT Realmuto said Thursday before Game 5. “I think that helps most starting pitchers, just that extra day of rest.”
At Wheeler, the numbers are not so clear cut. He has had mixed results on four and five days’ rest this postseason. And yes, he’s been better in 2022 with longer rest: he has a 3.64 ERA in 10 starts on four days’ rest, but after five or more days his ERA drops to 2.32 and his strikeout rate rises from 8, 6 in nine innings to 10.2. His WHIP after six or more days of rest is a microscopic .630.
His career numbers are less telling. His ERA is better in four days (3.14 compared to 3.66 in five and 3.77 in six-plus). But his base numbers aren’t quite as scattered — his WHIP goes up a bit from 1.128 to 1.208 on, say, four to six-plus days of rest.
The velo numbers have certainly gone down in the last outing. Wheeler has averaged 95.9 mph on his four-seam fastball this season, which is in the 83rd percentile for MLB (although it is his lowest fastball average since 2018). His batting average was 95.4, the lowest since 2017. He saw an uptick in both stats early in the postseason after being on the injured list in September with tendinitis in his right forearm, giving him a breather to regain strength before the playoffs. Wheeler has pitched 153 innings this season after 213.1 last year.
His velocity has jumped to start the postseason. Against St. Louis, he averaged 97.4 on the fastball and 96.4 on the sinker. He stayed at least 1 mph above his 2022 averages against Atlanta and both games against San Diego. Apparently, in Game Five of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park, he topped out at 99.5 mph and averaged 97.2 mph on his four-spot.
But his velo dropped noticeably in Game 2 in Houston, his four-seam high of 96.9. His sinker average was 94.8. The free-swinging Astros tacked on two runs inside four pitches.
So, given extra days because of the rain, manager Rob Thomson placed Aaron Nola on his usual rest for Game 4, kept him in the bullpen for the day before Thursday’s trip and pushed Wheeler to Game 6.
Realmuto hopes that this will be useful, although speed is not the be-all and end-all.
“Zach is a competitor,” he said. “Even in his starts this season, where his velo wasn’t necessarily as high as it always is, he always fights for us. He has everything to get the job done. “Whether he has 98 velo or not, as long as he has command and is able to attack the strike zone and get ahead of hitters, I’m not too worried about velo.”
While the stint in IL may have provided some short-term freshness, Thomson believes it could work against Wheeler’s durability since he was brought back into the rotation so quickly.
“I think it took a toll on him a little bit, and I think that’s why you’re seeing the speed drop a little bit now,” Thomson said. “So I’m hoping the extra couple of days will help him.”
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The Phillies have prided themselves on being consistent all season. So coming back after going hitless for the second time in World Series history and the third time in playoff history is no different from the process, Thomson said.
“I was walking into the club last night and I just told them to wash it off,” he said. “He is not there. Just reminded them that earlier in the season we got no hits when we played in New York and came back the next day and won. We played well. And this is the plan for today.”
The historical context can be comforting. On June 25, the Astros were no-hit and Christian Javier pitched again in blanking the New York Yankees three pitchers. The next day they lost at Yankee Stadium. On April 29, the Phillies were no-hit by the Mets. The next day they won at Citi Field. Even the Brooklyn Dodgers responded with a victory to Don Larsen’s outstanding game in the 1956 World Series. (One counterpoint: In 2010, the Phillies beat the Reds on the back of Roy Halladay’s first game no-no.)
Realmuto saw no change in how unlucky his team was Thursday.
“Baseball is a game of ups and downs, and you’re not going to win every game,” he said. “We do a really good job at this club of putting bad games behind us, moving on and continuing to have fun together. At the end of the day, we’re all playing child’s play for a living, so it’s hard to go out and be upset.”