Heilman to the Rotation?

Tired of being pigeonholed as a reliever, Aaron Heilman has demanded a trade from the Mets, as he wants them to find a team that will give him a shot to return to his roots as a starting pitcher. Other teams have found success moving relievers back into the rotation, Ryan Dempster being the most recent success, and Heilman was a first round pick as a starter in 2001, so there will probably be a team out there that believes that he’s worth a shot as a starter.

How successful will the conversion be? First off, let’s try to determine how good of a reliever Heilman has been.

Over the last four years, Heilman has tossed 357 innings, walked 131 batters, struck out 322, and allowed 29 HR, which adds up to a 3.67 FIP. That’s solidly above average for a reliever, but doesn’t make him a true relief ace. However, he wasn’t consistently above average all four years.

From 2005 to 2007, he ran a K/BB rate of between 2.61 and 3.15, showing good enough command of his fastball/change-up combination to throw strikes while missing a decent amount of bats. He sustained a pretty low HR/FB rate, which helped him keep the ball in the yard even though he’s not a dominant groundball pitcher. His FIP for those three years was 3.34, and he was a very good setup man.

Last year, however, his walk rate went through the moon, jumping from 2.09 to 5.45, and his HR/FB rate spiked, causing him to be a bit home run prone. It could be random variation, where he just had a rough year finding the strike zone, but a quick look at his pitch selection reveals an interesting change – Heilman started throwing a lot more sliders last year, throwing them in 12% of his pitches versus just 0.4% a year prior. The change-up dropped from 37.9% to just 24%, as the slider made him more of a three pitch guy and less dependent on the change.

The slider may have helped him miss a lot more bats, but he got those gains in strikeout rate by throwing way too many pitches out of the strike zone, and the end result was a jump in walk rate that was more detrimental than the jump in strikeout rate. If the rise in use of the slider was the cause the of dramatic jump in both BB and K rates, it appears to have been too detrimental to be worth it.

It will take a full breakdown of Pitch F/x data for us to determine whether the slider was the cause of the command problems, but it seems likely that the rise of the slider usage wasn’t a coincidence.

What does this mean for Heilman as a starter? Well, there aren’t that many successful starters who rely on strictly a fastball/change-up to get by. Almost every starting pitcher has some kind of breaking ball that they can use to change the plane of a hitters eye, and if Heilman just can’t command his slider, that could be a real issue in moving him into the rotation.

As a fastball/change-up guy, he was a very good reliever. As a fastball/change-up/slider guy, he was something of a mess. It’s not enough to conclude that he doesn’t have a chance as a starter, but I’d call this a buyer beware situation.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

5 Responses to “Heilman to the Rotation?”

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  1. Isaac says:

    Agreed. With Dempster, it was never his idea to go back to starting, rather Lou Piniella and Larry Rothschild believed that Dempster and his wide array of pitches would be put to better use starting. If in fact Heilman’s repertoire is as limited you say it is, then your conclusion is more than reasonable.

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  2. qqqqqqqq says:

    The funny thing is that a lot Mets fans think Aaron Heilman is a terrible pitcher, one of the worst relievers, just because of this one year. Over at metsblog, I see people calling him the worst reliever in baseball. I sure hope Omar Minaya does not feel that way, he can still be a good reliever if he drops that slider. Or better yet, he improves his slider.

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  3. acerimusdux says:

    I believe some of the pitch f/x data suggests that the change-up was less effective than in the past, and that some of the change-ups had less movement. It just looks as though he left a lot of them up over the middle of the plate. But I’m skeptical about whether they were really change-ups, or were hanging sliders that didn’t break. I’m not sure pitch f/x would know the difference.

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  4. James K. says:

    This is anecdotal, but I watched a large % of Mets games this year, and Heilman generally was not burned too often by the slider. I feel hitters weren’t expecting it, so they didn’t swing very often due to surprise, whether in the strike zone or not. His changeup was the #1 culprit for his problems with the long ball and line drives.

    The slider may have hurt his BB/9 though. You’re right, it would take more analysis to confirm.

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  5. Will Davidian says:

    It should first be noted that Heilman pitched this season with a knee problem which was believed to have had an effect on his delivery and most likely his control.

    Secondly, Heilman didn’t start incorporating his slider until Rick Peterson’s dismissal as pitching coach. Warthen suggested that he throw his slider to get hitters off of his fastball/change up combination which hurt him early on.

    Lastly, the Mets do not see him as a starter because of he pitches three-quarters with a “high-end elbow” delivery, making him an injury risk. Though a die-hard Mets fan, I’m quite cynical of the organization’s evaluation.

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