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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

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Anthony Rendon on not choosing Dodgers

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Los Angeles Dodgers approached this year’s winter meetings with striking aggression but nonetheless whiffed on the two biggest prizes in free agency. They offered Gerrit Cole a contract that reached $300 million but watched him join the New York Yankees on a record deal. They expressed interest in Anthony Rendon but learned that the sentiment wasn’t mutual.

Instead, Rendon joined the Los Angeles Angels, who play 30 miles south in Anaheim, located outside of Los Angeles County.

Rendon, speaking during his introductory news conference on Saturday, spoke highly of the Dodgers organizationally but said from the podium that “the Hollywood lifestyle” of L.A. “didn’t seem like it would be a fit for us as a family.” Later, in a smaller scrum, Rendon, who was born and raised in Houston, was asked about his general hesitancy toward the state of California at the onset of the offseason, and he joked about the high tax rate.

“I just think environment itself,” Rendon continued. “I think when people think about California, they think about straight Hollywood, that Hollywood glamour, whole bunch of flashes, so much paparazzi. But everyone said it’s just the complete opposite here.”

Rendon, also pursued by the Texas Rangers, agreed on a seven-year, $245 million contract with the Angels on Wednesday, putting him on the same roster as Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton and Albert Pujols.

The Angels had — and still have — a desperate need for frontline starting pitching and joined the Yankees and Dodgers in an aggressive pursuit of Cole. Angels owner Arte Moreno met with Cole along with Cole’s agent, Scott Boras, and some of Boras’ representatives at Angel Stadium on Sunday, before the start of the winter meetings from the San Diego. When the meeting concluded, Moreno asked Boras to stay for a one-on-one conversation. Moreno told Boras, also Rendon’s agent, that Rendon was his prime target. He wanted Rendon to know he was wanted and that he embodied what Moreno considered emblematic of the Angels’ brand.

“When I told Anthony that,” Boras said, “I think it had a large impact on his decision-making.”

Moreno is an ardent baseball fan. Angels general manager Billy Eppler recalled often calling him in the middle of the afternoon to notify Moreno about a roster move and being asked, with particular excitement, “Are you watching this game?” Eppler never knew which one.

Asked when he learned about Moreno’s affinity for Rendon, Eppler chuckled.

“I don’t know,” he said, “four years ago?”

Actually, it was longer than that. Moreno had been hearing about Rendon since his days at Rice University and had followed his path through the majors as he established himself among the game’s best all-around players. When Cole agreed to a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees on Tuesday night, the Angels immediately shifted their focus to Rendon. By late Wednesday morning, they basically had a deal in place. Later that night, it was done.

Trout reached out to Rendon shortly thereafter.

“Based on the exclamation points in his texts,” Rendon said, “he seemed really excited.”

Trout is one of only three position players who have accumulated more FanGraphs wins above replacement than Rendon over the past four years, along with Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich. During that stretch, from 2016 to 2019, Rendon batted .299/.384/.528, averaging 26 home runs and 101 RBIs. Last season, which ended in World Series triumph, he broke out, finishing third in National League MVP voting after batting .319/.412/.598 with 34 home runs and 26 RBIs for the Washington Nationals, who basically lost their chance of re-signing him when they gave Stephen Strasburg the same seven-year, $245 million contract.

The Angels have informed Rendon they will add to their starting rotation and are major players in both the trade and free-agent markets, eyeing names such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Corey Kluber. Rendon didn’t necessarily play a position of need, but the Angels wanted to remain flexible with regard to adding impact talent.

“That’s one of the primary elements of roster construction: If you’re not flexible, you can find yourself left out in the cold,” Eppler said. “We identified a few players that we felt brought a lot of certainty and impact in this free-agent market. Anthony was clearly one of those players.”

Rendon’s deal came nine months after Moreno signed Trout to a nine-year, $426.5 million extension, which made the Angels the first team with two players averaging $35 million in annual earnings. The Angels are coming off a 90-loss season and are 10 years removed from their last postseason victory. But their moves this offseason — adding Joe Maddon as their manager, signing Rendon and staying aggressive on pitching — make it clear they’re eyeing contention.

“I think he made a commitment to Mike,” Boras said of Moreno, “and Anthony was a big part of fulfilling that commitment.”

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Rendon on not choosing Dodgers — LA’s ‘Hollywood lifestyle’ not a fit

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Los Angeles Dodgers approached this year’s winter meetings with striking aggression, but nonetheless whiffed on the two biggest prizes in free agency. They offered Gerrit Cole a contract that reached $300 million, but watched him join the New York Yankees on a record deal. They expressed interest in Anthony Rendon, but learned that the sentiment was not mutual.

Instead, Rendon joined the Los Angeles Angels, who play 30 miles south in Anaheim, California, located outside of L.A. County.

Rendon, speaking during his introductory news conference on Saturday, spoke highly of the Dodgers organizationally, but said from the podium “the Hollywood lifestyle” of L.A. “didn’t seem like it would be a fit for us as a family.” Later, in a smaller scrum, Rendon, who was born and raised in Houston, was asked about his general hesitancy towards the state of California at the onset of the offseason and joked about the high tax rate.

“I just think environment itself,” Rendon continued. “I think when people think about California, they think about straight Hollywood, that Hollywood glamour, whole bunch of flashes, so much paparazzi. But everyone said it’s just the complete opposite here.”

Rendon, also pursued by the Texas Rangers, agreed on a seven-year, $245 million contract with the Angels on Wednesday, putting him on the same roster as Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton and Albert Pujols.

The Angels had — and still have — a desperate need for frontline starting pitching and joined the Yankees and Dodgers in an aggressive pursuit of Cole. Moreno met with Cole, his agent, Scott Boras, and some of Boras’ representatives at Angel Stadium on Sunday, before the start of the winter meetings from the San Diego. When the meeting concluded, Moreno asked Boras to stay for a one-on-one conversation. Moreno told Boras that Rendon was his prime target. He wanted Rendon to know he was wanted; that he embodied what Moreno considered emblematic of the Angels’ brand.

“When I told Anthony that,” Boras said, “I think it had a large impact on his decision making.”

Moreno is an ardent baseball fan. Angels general manager Billy Eppler recalled often calling him in the middle of the afternoon to notify Moreno about a roster move and being asked, with particular excitement, “Are you watching this game?” Eppler never knew which one. Asked when he learned about Moreno’s affinity for Rendon, Eppler chuckled.

“I don’t know,” he said, “four years ago?”

Actually, it was longer than that. Moreno had been hearing about Rendon since his days at Rice University and followed his path through the majors as he established himself among the game’s best all-around players. When Cole agreed to a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees on Tuesday night, the Angels immediately shifted their focus to Rendon. By late Wednesday morning, they basically had a deal in place. Later that night, it was done.

Trout reached out to Rendon shortly thereafter.

“Based on the exclamation points in his texts,” Rendon said, “he seemed really excited.”

Trout is one of only three position players who have accumulated more FanGraphs wins above replacement than Rendon over the last four years, along with Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich. In that stretch, from 2016 to 2019, Rendon batted .299/.384/.528, averaging 26 home runs and 101 RBIs. Last season, which ended in World Series triumph, he broke out, finishing third in National League MVP voting after batting .319/.412/.598 with 34 home runs and 26 RBIs for the Washington Nationals, who basically lost their chance of re-signing him when they gave Stephen Strasburg the same seven-year, $245 million contract.

The Angels have informed Rendon that they will add to their starting rotation and are major players in both the trade and free-agent markets, eyeing names such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Corey Kluber. Rendon didn’t necessarily play a position of need, but the Angels wanted to remain flexible with regards to adding impact talent.

“That’s one of the primary elements of roster construction — if you’re not flexible, you can find yourself left out in the cold,” Eppler said. “We identified a few players that we felt brought a lot of certainty and impact in this free-agent market. Anthony was clearly one of those players.”

Rendon’s deal came nine months after Moreno signed Trout to a nine-year, $426.5 million extension, which made the Angels the first team with two players averaging $35 million in annual earnings. The Angels are coming off a 90-loss season and are 10 years removed from their last postseason victory. But their moves this offseason — adding Joe Maddon as their manager, signing Rendon and staying aggressive on pitching — make it clear they’re eyeing contention.

“I think he made a commitment to Mike,” Boras said of Moreno, “and Anthony was a big part of fulfilling that commitment.”

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Five MLB teams that need to shop hard for hitting help

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Maybe nobody digs the long ball now that everybody is hitting the long ball. Just five of the 135 hitters who qualified for the batting title in 2019 hit fewer than 10 runs. Five years ago, that number was 43. Home runs are cheap and plentiful, and in a world in which front offices are looking for versatile, well-rounded players, the offense-only sluggers have had a harder time getting attention in free agency.

But even if the $100 million contract for any random slugger is dead, there are always teams that need to add offense. Unlike in past years, some of the players in this category might actually be undervalued by the market during a winter in which pitchers are getting paid. Here are five teams that should pay to add some punch to their lineups.

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