Aaron Heilman: Most Abused Pitcher in Baseball?

Was Aaron Heilman the most abused pitcher in baseball in 2008? Look at the numbers and judge for yourself. His 1486 pitches thrown were tied for the second-most in MLB among “pure” relievers — pitchers who did not make any starts. (Carlos Marmol led all relievers in pitches with 1505 – but we’ll get to him).

Tampa Bay’s J.P. Howell also threw exactly 1486 relief pitches in 2008 — yet he pitched consistently well throughout the year, and enjoyed a strong September, while Heilman finished the season in the doghouse, appearing in only 7 games. What was the difference?

First of all, Howell never appeared in more than 11 games in any one month — Rays manager Joe Maddon used Howell (and all his relievers) judiciously. Howell appeared in 8 games in April, 11 games in May, June, July, and September, and 12 games in August. Interestingly, his pitch counts were fairly high in the first two months of the season — 275 in April, 294 in May, and 280 in June — but Maddon tapered down his pitches in July (185) and August (210), ensuring he’d be strong enough in September (235 pitches).

Compare that to the “management” of Heilman:


Heilman was essentially pushed to the upper limits in April — you can blame Randolph for that — and he may never have recovered. To Randolph’s credit, he did back off on using Heilman in May and was limiting his pitches in June. However, once Manuel took over, it was right back to abuse, appearing 16 times in July and 15 times in August.

Also of note in the Howell — Heilman comparison is days’ rest. Howell was used on zero days rest 13 times all season; Heilman, twice as many (26). Howell was most frequently used on one days’ rest (19 times), followed by two days’ rest (16) and three days’ (9). In contrast, Heilman appeared with one days’ rest 21 times, on two days 18 times, and on three days’ 11 times. It should also be noted that Heilman once pitched in both ends of a doubleheader.

Appearances on Days’ Rest: JP Howell vs. Aaron Heilman


* including two ends of one DH

Finally, Aaron Heilman threw 26 or more pitches in an outing 18 times, including two instances in which he threw 51 pitches or more. Howell threw 26+ in a game 21 times, but never more than 50, and clearly was given more rest.

Of particular consideration is the fact that Aaron Heilman was slated to be a setup man or 7th inning middle reliever. As a result, he was conditioned for this role from the beginning of spring training. As such, we can presume that preseason preparation program was optimized for him to pitch one inning at a time, 2-3 times per week. The sum total of his acutal workload in the season, however, was more comparable to that of a long reliever / spot starter. In fact, the only relievers in 2008 who threw more pitches than Heilman, Howell, and Marmol were those who made at least a few starts, and who were used almost exclusively in long relief roles: Chan Ho Park, Hong Chih Kuo, Boof Bonser, and Carlos Villanueva.

But then what about Marmol, who threw 19 more pitches than Heilman and had perhaps the best season of any setup man / middle reliever in baseball?

Let’s look at Lou Piniella’s use of Marmol (which could also be termed “abuse”):


While it could be argued that Marmol was abused more than Heilman, it should be noted that Marmol’s highest pitch count in any one month was 293, and second-highest was 277. Heilman had highs of 308, 299, and 293 – again, these are numbers more comparable to long relievers. Still, it would seem that Marmol was at the very least the second-most abused pitcher in MLB next to Heilman, based on his frequency of use.

Marmol’s use in regard to days’ rest is similarly disturbing:


Unlike Heilman, however, Marmol was never used in both ends of a doubleheader. He threw more than 26 pitches in an outing 17 times (compared to Heilman’s 16), but never more than 51 (Heilman did it twice).

Also of concern is the fact that both Marmol and Heilman rely heavily on a mid-90s fastball; in contrast, Howell is a “soft tosser” who barely tops out at 90 MPH. Generally speaking, throwing at a higher velocity takes more toll on a pitcher’s body.

It has to be understood that these numbers reflect the most abused pitchers in all of MLB — the vast majority of middle relievers are used 10-12 times per month, 160-220 pitches per month. Total pitches for the year for a typical middle reliever is anywhere from 650-1100.

This post is an excerpt from an upcoming report in progress titled “Bullpen Blueprint”, which examines and compares the bullpens of successful MLB teams in 2008. The full report will be available for PDF download at MetsToday.com when it is complete.

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. isuzudude October 10, 2008 at 10:38 am
    I agree that Heilman was abused this season, and has been for the past 3 seasons. But is it fair to solely blame management for this abuse? If anything, I think Heilman abused himself more than Willie or Jerry with his ridiculously high walk totals and full counts this year. And that behavior started way back in April, before you can claim Heilman was overworked or fatigued. The bloated walk totals resulted in very high month-to-month pitch counts, which only Heilman is to blame for. If he threw more strikes and walked less batters, his innings would be quicker, his pitch counts lower, and his overall productivity much better. Yes, a certain extent of his ineptness this year should be credited to overusage (especially late in the season when he already had logged so many innings and pitches), but early in the year Aaron set himself up for a long and laborious year by failing to throw strikes. I think the explanation for his poor 2008 is that simple.
  2. joe October 10, 2008 at 11:33 am
    First of all, I’m not solely blaming anyone for anything. When the entire report is finished will be a better time to form your opinions on management / mismanagement. What I can tell you right now is that NO ONE in MLB was as close to being abused than Heilman and Marmol, and no manager was as irresponsible toward their bullpen as a whole as Jerry Manuel. It’s not even close.

    Heilman’s walk totals were definitely higher than in previous years — but they weren’t at “ridiculously high” levels until August and September. He walked 8 in 16 IP in April (not great, not terrible), 4 in 12 IP in May (acceptable), and 4 in 14 IP in June (good).

    Still, I will accept your argument that about Heilman’s pitch counts — he was around 20 pitches an inning in those early months, which is too much. However, I still don’t understand your point about the high month-to-month pitch counts being Heilman’s fault. One of the major points of this study is that relievers should be treated like starters — and that means monitoring pitch counts.

    In other words, yes, you can blame Heilman for walking three guys in two innings and thereby throwing 42 pitches. But how is it HIS fault that the manager doesn’t pay attention to that pitch count, and puts him into another game the next day?

    When John Maine hit 100 pitches in the fifth inning of a start due to his own inefficiencies, he was yanked — they didn’t let him get into the 7th or 8th and throw 160 pitches. That same thinking has to go into bullpen management.

    How about this: if Johan Santana pitched on three days’ rest from April through July, and was allowed to expend 130-150 pitches each time, would you be surprised if his ERA ballooned in August and September? Would you blame Johan, or the manager(s) who put him on the mound every three days (instead of 4) and paid little attention to his pitch counts?

  3. isuzudude October 10, 2008 at 1:16 pm
    Joe, I hope you don’t think I’m trying to blow holes through your thorough analysis, because I’m not. I don’t doubt you for a second when you tell us that the Mets bullpen was the most overworked by far in MLB, and that the combination of Willie and Jerry overused the bullpen like a pair of crackheads constantly needing a new fix.

    I agree 100% that pitchers who have been used to maximum capacity one day should be deemed untouchable unless absolutely necessary the following day. My point in my initial post was only trying to express a viewpoint that Heilman would have kept his pitch counts lower, thus allowing him to work more efficiently on short rest (as well as over the duration of the season), by throwing more strikes in his outings. And I place that blame on Aaron himself because managers aren’t directing the pitches coming out of Aaron’s hand to steer them towards the strikezone, or in a location where the batter will swing at them. It is Aaron’s sole responsibility to enter the game and throw strikes and get outs. And in far too many of his appearances this year, on both long and short rest, he was either walking the lead off batter, or walking in a run, or throwing a wild pitch to advance baserunners, or just simply trying to get batters to chance far too often driving up his pitch count unnecesarily.

    I think we’re just examining two different sides of the argument. And neither one of us is wrong or stating a mistruth. You are right and I do not disagree that Jerry overused and abused Heilman and the rest of the bullpen this season, which led to their 2nd consecutive late-season collapse. But I also think a portion of the blame of the bullpen’s futility needs to be placed on the pitchers themselves, and in Aaron’s case I think the high pitch count and walk totals early in the season caused his arm to tire out faster than usual, and made his pitch count and innings pitched stats look extremely outrageous by season’s end.

  4. joe October 10, 2008 at 1:32 pm
    DUH! of course the pitchers are somewhat to blame, but you’re missing the point — when you overuse a pitcher, he pitches LESS EFFECTIVELY !!!!!!

    Meaning, for example, he’ll not have his command, and not hit his spots, and throw less strikes.

    Again: if Johan Santana threw 150 pitches every three days, how much blame would you put on him, and how much on the manager?

    In addition, something I didn’t enter into the argument was the fact that Heilman’s had a bum knee since March. That knee meant he could not run and could not bike and could not therefore do much to keep his legs strong. I imagine he did other types of conditioning, but not sure how much he was capable of doing. A pitcher without strong, well-conditioned legs is going to pitch ineffectively — see: Schoeneweis, 2007. The Mets were fully aware that Heilman wasn’t properly conditioned for his typical 80+ game load, and pushed him through it anyway. And this isn’t just about Heilman — they pulled the same irresponsibility with Duaner Sanchez, who had no business making more than 40 appearances after shoulder surgery and 18 months off.

    Put another way, I wouldn’t buy a used car from Jerry Manuel. I’d know it was run to the ground by the time he was done with it.

  5. isuzudude October 10, 2008 at 2:06 pm
    Joe, I’m not missing your point. An exerpt from my last post stated: “You are right and I do not disagree that Jerry overused and abused Heilman and the rest of the bullpen this season, which led to their 2nd consecutive late-season collapse.” I believe I understand your point quite well. All I’m doing is adding another point as to why the bullpen, and more specifically why Heilman failed the Mets so miserably this season. And you added a third point, which may be the most important one of all, and that is that Aaron was pitching hurt this year. Most likely everything cascaded downward due to his knee injury.

    One more time, for the record: I do not disagree with you, nor am I missing your point that overusing the bullpen leads to ineffectiveness. You should know I wouldn’t miss that point since I’ve been side by side with you on this blog all year jumping on Willie and Jerry for overusing specific relievers in situations their services were not needed in. All I am saying is that Heilman could have helped his own cause in the early weeks and months of the season by throwing more strikes, walking less batters, and working less 3-2 counts. And what that would have done was made his 20-30 pitch per inning stats shrink, thus giving him more gas in the tank for later in the season, as well as the ability to contribute more effectively on shorter rest.

  6. joe October 12, 2008 at 10:16 pm
    ‘dude, I understand you don’t disagree with me. My problem (and it is MY problem) is that so many people are quick to put the blame on the pitcher, rather than the manager, for the bullpen falling apart the last two seasons.

    I go back to my Santana example: if Johan regularly pitched on three days’ rest, and averaged 150 pitches a game, the manager most certainly would be blamed for “whipping the horse too hard”. Yet when the manager has absolutely no limits for relievers’ pitch counts and use frequency, no one takes note.

    In truth, had Heilman pitched effectively and efficiently from the get-go, as you suggest, he more likely would have been abused even further, due to Jerry’s “hot hand” theory of bullpen management.

    Seriously, if Heilman had a good year, he might have appeared in 110 games and thrown over 2000 pitches.