Zack Wheeler may have just gotten a $126 million contract extension, but one day later, it became evident he doesn’t just plan to sit on his wallet.

Making his first start of Spring Training, Wheeler threw two innings against the Baltimore Orioles. He gave up two hits and a run, but he struck out four.

“It’s the first Spring start, so it’s something to build off of,” Wheeler said.

It was also the first time in a live game Wheeler toyed with a new pitch – a splitter.

“I threw two,” Wheeler said. “I got a swing and a miss on the first one and I pulled one that was fouled off to the backstop on the last guy (Kyle Stowers). It was one good and one bad. The good one was really good. I got a swing and miss like I wanted. The shape looked great. It’s just getting it consistent and throwing it a lot more.”

J.T. Realmuto said he threw three, a third one that was also fouled off weakly. Either way, working in the splitter is now part of the plan for the rest of the exhibition season – especially to left-handers. It’s something both Wheeler and pitching coach Caleb Cotham felt was a goal for the offseason – find a new pitch to get the lefties to chase.

“This is Spring Training,” Wheeler said. “This is where you work on stuff. You don’t worry about results at all – for me, knowing I have a spot (on the roster). I can work on stuff and try to get that pitch right for the season. I’ll probably throw a lot of them in spring – it may not translate over to the season. There may be certain counts, or I may throw it right-on-right or like on a 3-2 pitch to see if I can get that chase.”

Tinker. Fiddle. Experiment. Pick your verb. It’s something Wheeler has grown accustomed to doing as he gets older. Last Spring, he was messing around with a sweeper. It became an incredibly effective pitch.

“I’m all in favor of it,” Realmuto said. “He came in with the sweeper last year and was good at it. There was a little bit of a learning curve, but he got better and better with it as the season went along that eventually it became one of his go-to pitches.”

Now if the splitter can be a go-to pitch as well, the sky’s the limit for Wheeler. And he’s got his eyes on multiple prizes. A world championship is, of course, first and foremost, but Wheeler wouldn’t mind adding pitching’s top honor to his mantle as well.

“This can put me over the top – hopefully get a Cy Young,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. If I can take care lefties like I do righties, and hopefully that’ll take care of itself. I just need it to be consistent and be able to throw it for strikes and throw it for a chase, get the velo difference that I need and this is the time to really work on it.”

It’s not that lefties killed him in 2023. Its just that there was a big disparity between his dominance against righties and being a bit less effective against lefties. Here are the splits:

  • Right-handed batters vs. Wheeler: .194/.235/.313; .548 OPS
  • Left-handed batters vs. Wheeler: .261/.310/.412; .722 OPS

Pitching coach Caleb Cotham discussed this with Wheeler in the offseason as a way to combat those lefties. But why does a splitter have any more effectiveness than Wheeler’s other offerings?

“Just to have something that’s not hard and coming into a lefty,” Realmuto said.  “Pretty much everything he throws is angled coming in – whether it’s a slider, a curveball, a cutter, even his four-seam cuts in a little bit. Having something that goes the other direction … is just going to help him keep the lefties from sitting and spinning and cheating off of him.”

For Wheeler, the ever-evolving repertoire is something that he looks forward to developing every year. It’s something that keeps him engaged in the offseason and gets him excited each spring.

“I do enjoy it,” he said. “It keeps it fun and it keeps the hitters guessing. If you have the same bag of tools all the time they’re going to know what you throw in certain counts a lot – what you start guys out with, what you finish with. … If I don’t throw the cutter to righties at all, maybe I start mixing it in front door to them. You try to mix it up and try to stay fresh and new.”

Wheeler’s treat

After signing his new contract, Wheeler decided to treat all his teammates to some lunch just before the game – comfort food in the form of friend chicken, Texas Tommys and French fries.

“I wanted to get them nice and greased up before the game,” Wheeler joked.

Job well done.

Asked if he took part in Wheeler’s offering, Realmuto said he had two pieces of the chicken before the game.

How was it?

“I really felt all the grease in my stomach running from second to home,” he said.

The Phillies lost 3-2.

Stomach bug gets two more

Maybe the Phillies should eat more comfort food to fight off the illness that is coursing through the clubhouse. Both Nick Castellanos and Kody Clemens were scratched from the lineup Tuesday after feeling sick in the morning.

Manager Rob Thomson said he’s lost count of how many guys have had to miss time as a result of this stomach bug.

“I don’t know the total because it’s rotating, but it’s a lot,” Thomson said.

Christopher Sanchez was one of the guys who was sick and missed a few days, he was back with the team Tuesday, but Thomson said he’s not sure yet when he’ll pitch again.

The Phillies have a complete off day Wednesday and then play Thursday in Port Charlotte against Tampa Bay. Thomson said Aaron Nola will start that game but couldn’t update the rotation after that.

“We’re kind of just a medical department,” he said.

What about Walker?

Taijuan Walker missed time last week to fly home to handle a personal matter. Upon his return he threw a live batting practice and felt soreness in his knee. The Phillies gave him a few days off after that and he has yet to pitch in a game this spring.

Thomson said he threw a bullpen session and felt good. He would likely have to throw another batting practice before he pitched in a game.

This would make the second straight season Walker is a little behind schedule. He missed part of Spring Training pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic last season and now this.

“You don’t want guys behind schedule,” Thomson said. “But if he cranks it up here in the next few days and throws a BP maybe on Thursday maybe he gets a start on Sunday or Monday. We’ll see.”