What’s Wrong with Heilman?

If you are one of those fans who has come to hate Aaron Heilman (for example, if you refer to him as “poopyface” or something less family-friendly), then please don’t bother reading further — your opinion likely can’t be changed at this point.

The rest of you, who have at least a glimmer of hope in the righthander, can continue on, consider my analysis, and provide your own below.

Let’s get one thing established: I’m a huge fan of Aaron Heilman, and thus I tend to be an apologist / defender, and perhaps my opinion is slightly biased. So take my analysis with a grain of salt.

First, I don’t think there is any one thing “wrong” with Aaron. He still touches 96-97 on the gun with a hard sinking fastball. His change-up still has good bite and ideal speed (about 10 MPH less than the fastball). I don’t believe there are any demons in his head lurking back to the 2006 NLCS — if that were so, how do you explain his spectacular pitching during the second half of ’07? Finally, he doesn’t appear to be injured (yet … but give Willie time, he’ll Proctorize him evetually).

Second, I think it is a huge mistake to bunch all of Aaron’s poor performances into one basket and say he stinks, because again, there isn’t one specific issue that caused the demise in those ballgames. Rather, if you analyze his appearances individually — and analyze, rather than react to the outcomes — you’ll see different reasons for those “bad games”. (No, I will not detail each appearance here, unless a dozen of you beg me to do so.)

For example, in some of those outings, the problem was fatigue, which caused his arm angle to drop, which caused his hand to get under the ball at release, which caused the ball to fly up higher in the strike zone than he intended. Cause and effect. Fatigue happens when your manager trots you out to the mound 12 times in the first 18 games of the year. At that pace, Heilman would appear in 108 games by the end of the season, breaking Mike Marshall’s MLB record of 106. Fatigue also occurs when you pitch with no days’ rest four times, and with one day’s rest six times, within a three-week period. So we can blame some of those bad outings on overuse (I call it “abuse”).

More recently, however, the issue is his location — which is not the same as command. If his target was set up in one spot, and his pitches were ending up elsewhere, we could surmise he had a control problem. For the most part, he doesn’t, and lately I’m baffled by the pitch-calling — which has to be due to Brian Schneider’s absence behind the dish. When Schneider is out, I’m not sure who’s calling the pitches — Raul Casanova? Heilman? Rick Peterson? Randolph? — but whoever it is, he needs to re-think his strategy.

In the Cubs game on the 21st, Heilman was pounding the inside of the plate with his fastball, but in last night’s loss I didn’t see one pitch inside. Casanova was setting up outside so it wasn’t a matter of command — whoever was in charge of pitch-calling was continually calling pitches on the outside part of the plate. I do understand that there are scouting reports that specify each batter’s weaknesses and strengths, and that it’s a good idea to expose a weakness. However, that doesn’t mean you continually pitch to that one specific location over and over and over. Case in point: Lastings Milledge. Everyone and his brother knows Milledge can’t hit junk off the outside of the plate. Fine. But after throwing six offspeed pitches out there in a row, even Milledge is smart enough to realize the plan. How about freezing him with that 96-MPH fastball in on his hands, after you have him leaning and diving over the plate and thinking the ball’s coming in at 84-86? Instead the full-count fastball was called on the outside, it missed its mark (because Heilman’s best fastball is a sinker that moves inside, not outside), and Milledge walked, setting up the grand slam. That granny, by the way, was poor location in that it was a belt-high changeup over the middle of the plate — but it never would have gotten to bases loaded, full count, had Milledge been fed an inside heater in his at-bat.

Of course, there is little excuse for the location of the pitch that Felipe Lopez hit for the grand slam — it was a belt-high changeup over the heart of the plate — and Lopez was sitting dead-red on the change. But you can’t look at that one pitch and say, “oh, Heilman has to shelve that changeup, it sucks”; or, “Heilman stinks, he’s always giving up homeruns” — because it’s not always that simple. While you are drowning down a beer and a hot dog, chatting with your buddy next to you, and texting your significant other, there are small, barely noticeable nuances in the ballgame that build to the eventual outcome (don’t tell the sabremetricians that, though, because they can’t measure that stuff and therefore dismiss it). Baseball cannot be measured solely on individual outcomes — you have to watch what’s happening before to understand why they occurred. In many ways, baseball games are like movies; if you miss ten or fifteen minutes of the plotline, you may not understand why the flick ended the way it did.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Coop April 25, 2008 at 1:38 pm
    Hey Joe – this was very well written and argued. You know that I don’t necessarily agree with your “stance” on Heilman (and I quote – the best pitcher in the National League!) but I don’t think he’s as bad as his outings have suggested as you say. His major problem is his mental game. He, as Kamikaze told Cerrano in Major League II, has no marbles. I mean that in the truest sense of the word. If he’s gonna be a reliever, he needs to get tough and you know me in real life, I’ll be a lot meaner LOL. I have faith in Heilman – it’s Sosa who truly frightens me.
  2. joe April 25, 2008 at 2:21 pm
    Coop – firstly, I thought for sure you’d move on after the first sentence :-). Second, I said he was ONE of the best pitchers in the NL, not THE best (suds cloud the memory).

    You may have something there with the mental game … in my opinion, he should have been put back in the rotation a long time ago, where his mentality is more suited, but that’s for another day …

    And I must agree — Sosa is scary. In fact I might be more confident with Mota on the mound. At least Guillermo threw more than one pitch.

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