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|
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|
A Tale of Two Pitchers
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:
Aaron Heilman (This Article)
Chan Ho Park
Four Other Names for You
2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up