Monday, June 1, 2020

Out of Nowhere

Sometimes a pitcher explodes onto the scene, as Matt Harvey did in 2012 or Doc Gooden in 1984, immediately staking his claim to glory. Some, like former #1 overall pick Brian Taylor, never even come within sniffing distance of the majors despite major hype as a prospect. Still others take a more circuitous route to major league success. 2005 Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman is a member of that third group.

Drafted #1 by the Mets (18 overall) in the 2001 draft out of Notre Dame University, Heilman put up decent numbers as he advanced from A ball to AAA by June 2003. Heilman was elevated to the major leagues after GM Steve Phillips was handed his walking papers that June, and it did not go well. Heilman was pummeled over 13 major league starts to the tune of a 6.75 ERA and a WHIP of 1.83. Over 65.1 innings he gave up an incredible 13 HR. It was clear that Aaron Heilman was not a major league pitchers at that point, and rather questionable that he would ever be one.

Sent back down to Triple-A Norfolk in 2004, Heilman's performance was mediocre, and he was quite bad again in 5 late-season major league starts. By the time 2005 rolled around, Heilman's career was stalled and he was no longer viewed as a prospect.

What happened that spring resurrected Aaron Heilman's career.  The 6'5" righty 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. The change cost him 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 old delivery with the delivery of the late Don Drysdale who, like Aaron, was also a tall righty. Jackson discussed it with bullpen coach Guy Conti.  After looking at some film, they took it to pitching coach 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.

An injury to starter Kris Benson opened the door for Heilman to start the season as the Mets fifth starter. After all of the hype in the offseason, the Mets got off to an 0-5 start in 2005, including Heilman's initial start. He allowed 5 runs in 5 innings against the Braves, and it looked a lot like all his failed MLB starts from the previous 2 seasons. Not to mention, the natives were getting restless with the losing streak.

By the time Aaron Heilman's second start rolled around on Friday night, April 15, the Mets had calmed their fans by winning 4 in a row. It didn't look like there would be a fifth straight win, however, with the erratic Heilman slated to face Josh Becket and the Marlins. Becket was one of the best young pitchers in baseball, and was riding a 15 inning scoreless streak coming into the game.

In the top of the first, Heilman set the Marlins down on 3 ground balls. The Mets put an end to Becket's scoreless streak in the bottom of the frame with a couple of unearned runs. Heilman quickly navigated the second by striking out Carlos Delgado and inducing 2 more ground ball outs. I remember watching that game and thinking to myself that his stuff looked electric, both his fastball and changeup showing great movement. Still, after a couple of seasons of watching Aaron Heilman pitch, the  question seemed to be not if but when it would all fall apart.

Becket held the Mets at bay in the second. Heilman followed in the third by sandwiching a pair of Ks around another groundball out. The Mets squandered a pair of baserunners in the bottom of the frame. It seemed ominous at the time to waste a scoring chance against Becket.

The top of the fourth went bad quickly as Heilman hit Juan Pierre with a pitch. Pierre stole second, then moved to third on Luis Castillo's infield hit. There were 2 on, no outs, and the heart of the Marlins order coming up. I mentally prepared for the worst. Heilman dodged a bullet when Miguel Cabrera lined out to Chris Woodward at 3B. Delgado followed with a short fly to Beltran in CF that failed to advance Pierre. The crowd got noisy as Heilman faced Mike Lowell with a chance to emerge unscathed. Heilman coaxed another groundball, forcing Castillo at second, and Heilman walked off to an ovation from relieved fans.

Becket got the Mets 1-2-3 in his half of the fourth. Heilman worked around a 2-out walk in the fifth. At one point Fran Healey, calling the game on TV, noted that Heilman was dominating the Marlins. He sounded as if he didn't believe it himself.

The Mets finally touched up Becket again for a pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth on Mike Piazza's 2-run double. With a 4-0 lead, the question became how much longer Heilman could keep the Marlins off the board.

In the sixth, Heilman walked Luis Castillo with one out, but then induced an inning-ending double play from Cabrera. In the seventh he got a bit of a scare when, with 1 out, Mike Lowell hit a ball to deep center, but Beltran tracked it down. Heilman struck out Paul Lo Duca looking to end the frame. The top of the eighth passed quickly as Heilman struck out the side.

As Heilman took the mound in the top of the ninth, the remaining drama was whether Aaron Heilman could finish his one-hit shutout. He got Juan Pierre leading off the inning on a flyout to Beltran, bringing up Luis Castillo, whose infield single in the fourth stood as the lone hit for the Marlins. Castillo worked a full count and then drew a walk. With Miguel Cabrera at the plate, Heilman got ahead with a strike, then induced another ground ball that turned into an easy 6-4-3 double play. Game over.

Aaron Heilman entered that game as a failed prospect, with a lifetime major league record of 3-11 and an ERA over 6. By the time he walked off the mound 2 hours and 21 minutes later, he had a future again.

It wasn't a smooth ride, however. Heilman faced the Marlins and Becket again next time out in Miami and got tuned up, allowing 7 runs on 11 hits in only 4 innings. He did better in a win over the Braves that followed, holding them to a run on 2 hits over 7 innings, beating John Smoltz. In all, Aaron Heilman started 7 games while primarily holding Benson's spot in the rotation. He wound up with a 2-3 record and a 4.71 ERA over those 7 starts. He pitched very well in 2 of them, well enough in another, and poorly in the other 4.

With Benson back and the Mets committed to the awful Kaz Ishii as their fifth starter, there was no place for Heilman in the rotation. In fairness, although anyone would have been an upgrade to Ishii, Aaron Heilman had hardly staked a claim to a starting job. He had some intriguing moments, particularly that dominating performance against the Marlins, but he had been quite erratic from start to start.

Aaron Heilman's weakness a starting pitcher was a lack of a quality breaking ball to compliment a sinking fastball with a ton of movement and an excellent changeup that also featured late movement. Pitching Coach Rick Peterson saw Heilman as a bullpen arm, and that's where he stayed his entire Mets career, despite Aaron's constant requests to be given another chance at starting.

As I've noted in previous installments in my series on the 2005 season, Minaya's decision to go for it came despite the fact that the Mets had little available in their farm system. The 2005 bullpen was awful with few exceptions, one of which was Aaron Heilman. While he lacked the dominating stuff of a prototypical late-inning reliever, he was better than almost anything else the Mets had. Many Mets fans remember the home run he gave up in the 2006 NLDS, but the Mets would probably have not even been in those playoffs if Heilman hadn't done such a solid job as a setup man.

The biggest drawback to being an effective reliever for the Mets of that era was that you were pretty much guaranteed to be overused. Just ask Perpetual Pedro Feliciano how that worked out for him.

Aaron Heilman was a full-time reliever for the Mets from May 2005 through the end of the 2008 season. He was shipped out as part of the disastrous 3-team trade that shipped out Jason Vargas, Endy Chavez and Joe Smith, among others, for relievers J.J Putz, Sean Green and light-hitting OF Jeremy Reed. None of the 3 helped the Mets, while Vargas and Smith had solid careers.

To say that Heilman was overused was an understatement. From 2006 - 2008 he appeared in an astounding 233 regular season games, for a combined 249 IP. Part of the story of the 2007 and 2008 Mets September collapses was that any good reliever they had was exhausted. By 2008 Heilman's career was already on a steep decline.

The Mariners traded Heilman to the Cubs shortly after acquiring him. He was  promised a chance to win a starting job there, but pitched only in relief for the Cubs in 2009, and not very well. Traded to Arizona for the 2010 season, Heilman again was used strictly as a reliever, again with subpar results.

He resigned with the Diamondbacks for 2011, once again promised a shot at the rotation, once again being used as a reliever. He appeared in 32 games, pitching to a 6.88 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP, allowing 8 home runs. The D-backs released him in July, and Aaron Heilman's career as a Major League pitcher was over at age 32.

He pitched the remainder of 2011 and 2012 in the minors of 4 different organizations, and finally called it quits after the 2012 season. I find it somewhat ironic that, as badly as he wanted to be starting pitcher, he never started another game for a Major League club after those 7 starts for the Mets in 2005. Even his 2011 and 2012 minor league stints were all as a reliever. It must have been quite frustrating for Aaron Heilman never getting the chance to prove that he could be an effective Major League starter.

I saw Heilman pitch a lot of games for the Mets, and have my doubts that he could ever develop the third pitch he would have needed to compete as a starter. As bad as the Mets always seemed to need more dependable starting pitching in that stretch from 2005-2008, they needed setup relievers more. It was Heilman's curse that he proved dependable enough as a setup man that the Mets wouldn't take a chance on losing his contributions there. It must have been frustrating for Heilman to watch the parade of starting pitchers that failed so miserably for the Mets during his tenure.

Looking back, Heilman lacked the real swing and miss stuff that the most effective late inning pitchers possess. He did a pretty good job for the most part, and probably would have benefitted greatly from being used less often. On a team with a better bullpen he would have slotted more appropriately as a 7th inning guy. The Mets always seemed to be short of pitching in 2007 and 2008, and we know how that wound up turning out.

Heilman was a solid bullpen arm for the Mets from 2005 through 2007, by 2008 it was clear that his best days were behind him. Many fans were exasperated with Aaron Heilman before he was shipped out, seeing him as a symbol for the club's failure to have enough pitching to carry them through a season. For me, I'll never forget that one magical evening in 2005 when he came out of nowhere and pitched one of the best games I have ever watched, tantalizing with a promise that he was never quite able to fulfill.

Thanks for taking this trip for me back to the 2005 season. I'll be back tomorrow with something new. Please stay safe, and take care.

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