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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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MLB umpires union distances itself from Joe West’s opinion on coronavirus

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In the aftermath of comments made by veteran umpire Joe West, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association on Thursday issued a statement saying that “recent public comments” do not reflect its stance regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our nation, and the world, has suffered greatly from this deadly virus,” said the union’s statement, which did not mention West by name. “In the midst of continued suffering, umpires are attempting to do our part to bring the great game of baseball back onto the field and into the homes of fans everywhere.”

The 67-year-old West said he doesn’t believe the deaths being attributed to the coronavirus — which has surpassed 130,000 in the United States — is an accurate figure.

“Those statistics aren’t accurate, I don’t care who’s counting them,” West told USA Today Sports. “When country music [singer] Joe Diffie died, they said he died of the coronavirus. He had Stage 4 lung cancer. The coronavirus may have accelerated his death, but let’s be realistic.

“Our system is so messed up they have emptied hospitals because there’s no elective surgery. The government has been giving these hospitals extra money if someone dies of the coronavirus. So everybody that dies is because of coronavirus. I don’t care if you get hit by a car, it’s coronavirus.”

The MLBUA statement says the union “fully supports” the safety protocols agreed to by Major League Baseball and the MLBPA and that “regardless of any umpire’s personal views, when we report for a resumed spring training and 2020 season, we will conduct ourselves as professionals and in accordance with the health and safety protocol.”

West was found to be at high-risk for COVID-19 by MLB and was offered full pay and service time to opt out of this season, however he has told MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem that he will return to work during the shortened 60-game season.

A source told ESPN’s Buster Olney that MLB umpires were tested Tuesday and will be tested again Friday. If they test negative, they will be on the field Sunday, the source said.

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus,” West told The Athletic. “I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths. I said [to Halem], ‘I’m not going to opt out. I’m going to work. And I’m going to work until you take me off the field or I get hurt, whatever. I’m working.'”

West needs to umpire 65 games to break the all-time record for most regular-season games worked by an umpire, which is held by Bill Klem (5,375). He told USA Today Sports that he’s “being cautious, just like everyone else,” but he’s never thought about not working this season.

“I think I shocked [Halem] when I said, ‘No, I’m working,'” West told The Athletic. “… If this game hasn’t gotten me by now, no virus is going to get me. I’ve weathered a bunch of storms in my life. I’ll weather another one.

“… You know I’m chasing the rainbow. I’m chasing the end of this record. I’d like to be young enough to enjoy it.”

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Fantasy baseball mock draft: 10-team roto

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Results of ESPN’s fantasy baseball mock draft held July 8, featuring 10 teams and rotisserie-style scoring.

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Fantasy baseball roto mock draft reaction

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The first thing one might notice when participating in any fantasy baseball mock draft on ESPN this month is that so many of the projected numbers, whether they are for hitters or pitchers, kind of look the same. Expectations for so many relevant hitters settle into the 8-10 home run range with three or four stolen bases — and five wins is a nice, round number for top starting pitchers. Well, there is a good reason for that. Over six months, numbers change more, variance rises. The best players should produce the best numbers, in theory, given ample time. However, ample time is not what we have here.

Over two months, there is simply not enough time for

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