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2007 Bullpen Preview: Aaron Heilman

Mike SteffanosThursday, January 18, 2007
By Mike Steffanos

Aaron Heilman was the Mets top pick (#18 overall) in the 2001 draft -- the same draft that netted them David Wright twenty places later. Heilman's successful class-A debut that season solidified him as a top prospect. Here is a scouting report on Aaron Heilman from 2002, when Baseball America ranked him as the number one prospect in the Mets' system:

Strengths: Mature and focused, he works off his 91-94 mph fastball, which has incredible movement and bores in on righthanders. He also features a plus slider with excellent downward action, along with a decent changeup and splitter. His command is another positive, and he maintains control of all four of his offerings throughout the game with his improved stamina. Scouts love his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and his feisty approach with runners in scoring position. His three-quarters delivery is easy and fluid, reducing the stress on his arm, a key trait for a pitcher who will be counted upon to eat innings at higher levels. Heilman has all the makings of a potential workhorse who could be a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the New York rotation.

Weaknesses: Despite his maturity, Heilman has just seven starts and less than 40 professional innings. His secondary offerings, particularly his changeup, need more consistency. Most scouts don't believe his fastball will add any more velocity, so his 83-84 mph splitter must stay consistent in order for him to get experienced lefthanders out. He made strides with the pitch in college last spring.

I found it interesting that his changeup needed the work back then, as it has now obviously become his best pitch.

Heilman put up solid numbers in Double-A and Triple-A the following season, and once again was selected as a top 10 prospect by BA. He started 2003 in Triple-A, but with the overdue firing of Steve Phillips in June and the ensuing fire sale, Heilman got his first shot at the majors. A 6.75 ERA in 13 starts wasn't quite what the Mets were hoping for, and continued struggles in Norfolk and in a 5 game cameo with the Mets in 2004 changed his status from prospect to suspect. The Mets tried very hard to deal him in the winter of 2004-5, but couldn't get anything in return. When Heilman reported to spring training in 2005 there were few that expected anything from the 26-year-old.

What happened next has been well documented. Heilman had pitched with a low 3/4 delivery during his successful Notre Dame career, but at some point in the Mets minor league system his arm angle was changed to more straight overhand. He lost both his consistent delivery and the movement off his fastball. While working with Heilman that spring, pitching instructor Al Jackson noticed a similarity between Heilman's delivery with the late Don Drysdale's. Jackson discussed it with bullpen coach Guy Conti. After looking at some film, they took it to Rick Peterson. A decision was made to move Heilman back to that low 3/4 delivery, which led to the successful 2005 campaign that salvaged his career.

Also well documented is Heilman's strong desire to become a starter again, and the Mets insistence on keeping one of the best setup men in baseball in the bullpen. We won't argue this point here, as it is obvious that Heilman will remain a reliever for as long as he stays in New York. There is some thought that disappointment over his role led to the struggles Heilman experienced in the first half of 2006. Here are Aaron's numbers from 2005 and 2006:

Aaron Heilman 2005 & 2006 MLB Stats
Year Games Innings Hits/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA AVG OBP SLG
2005 53 108.0 7.3 8.8 3.1 0.5 3.17 .223 .296 .299
2006 74 87.0 7.6 7.6 2.9 0.5 3.62 .231 .292 .332

Also worth a look are Heilman's splits last year against righties and lefties, and his pre- and post-All Star break numbers:

Aaron Heilman 2006 Splits
  Innings ERA Hits/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 AVG OBP SLG 
vs. RHB 47.0 4.40 7.5 7.3 1.1 0.6 .231 .260 .337
vs. LHB 40.0 2.70 7.7 7.9 5.0 0.5 .231 .337 .327 

A Tale of Two Pitchers
  Innings ERA Hits/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 AVG OBP SLG 
Pre-All Star 49.2 4.35 8.7 7.2 3.1 0.7 .257 .322 .380
Post-All Star 37.1 2.65 6.0 8.0 2.7 0.2 .194 .262 .264 

What jumps out at you in the righty/lefty splits from last year is the high walk rate to left-handed batters. A lot of those walks came as Heilman struggled in the first half of the year. After the All Star Break the numbers picked up dramatically. Of his five blown saves on the year, none came after the break. While Heilman's WHIP against left-handers in the first half was an appalling 1.72, that number fell to 0.98 after the break -- probably the single greatest reason for his turnaround. Indeed, though, Heilman dominated all hitters post-break, as evidenced by that outstanding line of .194 AVG/.262 OBP/.264 SLG.

For what it's worth, my impression of Aaron Heilman is that he does much better with a well-defined role. His role became somewhat vague during the first half of last season, and that's when he was at his worst. When Sanchez went down and the Mets needed him to respond and make the eighth inning his own, he did exactly that. He handles pressure situations really well -- indeed, he seems to perform better when the heat is on -- and could probably be a really solid major league closer someday.

Although he has a slider that he will throw occasionally, Heilman's arsenal consists of mainly a moving fastball and an extremely well-disguised effective changeup. The changeup is by far his best pitch. Major league hitters hit .219 off that pitch. His ratio of fastball/changeup/sliders is 62% / 31% / 7% to right-handers and 55% / 40% / 4% to lefties. At times Heilman has a difficult time throwing his fastball inside to left-handers, as its natural movement wants to take it back over the plate. Because of this, he has to start the pitch right at the batter to get that inside corner. This is a good part of the reason that his walk rate last year was 1.1/9IP to righties and 5.0/9IP to lefties. Ron Darling mentioned during a telecast last season that he though Heilman should work to develop a cut fastball so he could pitch inside to lefties easier, and that would seem to be an excellent idea if he could master the pitch.

With Duaner Sanchez returning from that shoulder separation caused by that fateful cab ride and Guillermo Mota out for the first 50 games of the season, it seems that Heilman will have an important role at the beginning of the year. It's possible, however, that the Mets might still move him if the right deal for a starting pitcher comes along. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if the Scott Schoeneweis signing doesn't make him a little more expendable. If he's here, expect Heilman to share the eighth inning role with Sanchez, and expect him to continue to perform well.

2007 Bullpen Previews:
Jon Adkins
Adam Bostick
Ambiorix Burgos
Marcos Carvajal
Pedro Feliciano
Aaron Heilman (This Article)
Guillermo Mota
Clint Nageotte
Juan Padilla
Chan Ho Park
Duaner Sanchez
Steve Schmoll
Scott Schoeneweis
Aaron Sele
Joe Smith
Jorge Sosa
Billy Wagner
Other Candidates
Four Other Names for You

2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (9)

Heilman is quite possibly the most underrated and overrated Met player simultaneously. He is underrated in the sense that a pitcher of his stature, natural talent, and fierce comeptitiveness is limited to a setup role on a team that desperately needs someone like him in the starting rotation. He is overrated in the popular belief that he is a solid #3 pitcher in waiting when his record as a starter simply does not support that belief.

You make a great point in saying that he floundered while in an ill defined setup role and dominated when the premiere setup arm in the pen. He seems to need responsibility to keep focus and perform. I wonder what will become of him if Sanchez is really healthy again and he finds himself back in the 7th inning role.

Darling hit the nail on the head when pointing out that Heilman would benefit tremendously from the development of a cut fastball. His fastball/changeup combimation is absolutely devestating to hitters in a 1 inning role, but he is just not likely to be able to go through a major league lineup 2 or 3 times consistently with just those 2 pitches. I, for one, would love to see him get a chance to start for this team rather than being dealt for lesser pitching or left to flounder in a nebulous setup role. But the fact remains that he must expand his repertoire of pitches to be able to last 6-7+ innings as a starter. Unless he develops a pitch like a cutter to through to lefties with confidence as a complement to the changeup he will not find himself in the starting rotation. And that would be a real shame for a player of his ability.

I disagree with Salaman, at least as to the sequence of events as described.

Heilman's arsinal of pitches might seem too narrow for him to succeed as a starter, but that is largely due to the role he has filled the past 1 1/2 seasons. How many relievers are encouraged to employ a wide assortment of pitches? Does Jason Isringhausen still throw the knuckle curve, ever? Not to my knowledge he doesn't; and it was a damn good pitch, remember.

Given the chance to stretch out, and the necessity of facing each batter multiple times, I think we'd start seeing the slider much more regularly; and with use I believe it would be an effective pitch. Maybe a cut fastball would help more than it would hurt (throwing it sometimes does adversely affect a pitcher's fastball), but regardless I have every confidence that Heilman can be a good starter in the big leagues.

In fact I believe that Aaron Heilman is exactly the sort of horse that Cox and Mazone would have taken in the mid-90's and riden over five seasons to 1000 innings and 80 victories. I also think that we'll get to see this happen, on another team, once Aaron's servitude with the Mets has run its course.

Two other thoughts, quickly. There HAVE been effective major league starters who relied on two pitches, you know. Remember Mario Soto? Fastball and a changeup, period; and for three-four years Soto was about the best pitcher in the National League.

Also, if a team is getting 95 innings from one of its best pitchers, instead of the 170-180 innings you might want, then it is a lock that team will be picking up that innings shortfall from its weakest pitchers. Sure, all innings are not created equal, but it takes a powerful lot of adjusted thinking to justify that.

I didn't want to get into the whole Heilman as a starter thing here, only because I think it's a useless argument at this point. The Mets will keep him in the bullpen.

Given the fact that Heilman's arm slot change in the spring of 2005 enabled him to be an effective pitcher, any evaluation of Heilman as a starter before 2005 is pointless. He was simply a bad pitcher before the change, period.

Yet there are many that point to his 2005 splits as a starter/reliever to "prove" he is not a starter, in essence using 7 starts as a body of work to judge his effectiveness as a starter. I, on the other hand, am someone who believe Heilman can be a solid mid-rotation starter if given a real chance.

We can debate this point all day and prove nothing. He's a reliever with the Mets. They will not put him in the rotation.

Despite what Mets officials are saying now, I think there is a possibility that Heilman could get another crack at the rotation this year. But not until Mota is back AND Sanchez proves he is healthy again. If that 5th starters slot is not being held down by Mota's return I can't see Minaya holding Heilman back from getting his chance.

Of course, it's more likely that the Mets will be very active making moves in season since they weren't able to do it during the offseason.

IF Trachsel got 15 wins last year with this team, I do not see why we have to use A.H. as a starter. I think we have a few right now who can win 15 with this team and the ones who are left to fight for a slot as 4th or 5th are good enough to leave him at our strength in the pen.

I remember reading that Heilman had the best slider of any college pitcher in the draft back in 2001. The Baseball America scoutng report posted above backs that up by calling his slider a plus pitch. I can't imagine that if he began throwing it regularly that it wouldn't become an effective pitch again. The Mets bullpen looks to be very strong again and the rotation obviously weak, if Sanchez reclaims the 8th inning role why wouldn't you put Heilman in the rotation? I just don't see the drawback. If he fails then you can return him to the bullpen where you know he is effective. I guess the only drawback I can see is if he fails as a starter again then the trade value he has as a potential starter for other teams diminishes.

It's true his arm angle and delivery have changed signficantly back in the past 2 seasons. That may make him better suited for a 3rd pitch, or it may make it harder for him to develop. Since he hasn't utilized one as a reliever we won't know. I still maintain that I wouldn't mind seeing him get a chance to start before being traded away for lesser value, but only if we don't acquire a good inning eater to complement the rest of the staff.

Nevertheless, Mike is right. The debate is purely academic because there's no reason to believe the Mets will ever let the guy start for us again.

um, Salman, he doesn't need to develop a 3rd pitch, he threw a slider all 4 years in college, and used it in the minors as well, as well as a splitter. Can he still throw them? Sure, probalby not as well as when he was using them regularly, but given some time, i'm sure the slider would be back, and it's not like he never uses is now, every once in a while it gets thrown in there, sometimes it just looks a lot like the change too. Either way, Heilman certainly has the talent to be a middle of the rotation starter, I think having more time back with this arm slot, time with Peterson, he could do well, but I do agree he probably needs a cut fastball, something like that, just to throw to lefties.

I think the only fair way to evaluate Heilman as a starter would be to give him an entire year from spring training onward. At the end of the year you'd have a pretty good idea on exactly what he was as a starter. The way things stack up for the Mets right now I don't see that happening. I'd like to see him get the chance, and wrote about it a lot last year. I just don't see a point to it this year.

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