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:

Howell vs. Heilman

Pitcher AprG/P MayG/P JunG/P JulG/P AugG/P SepG/P
Howell 8/275 11/294 11/280 11/185 12/217 11/235
Heilman 16/308 10/247 14/238 16/299 15/293 7/101

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

Days Rest

Pitcher 0 days 1 day 2 days 3 days
Howell 13 19 16 9
Heilman 26* 21 18 11

* 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”):

Howell - Heilman - Marmol

Pitcher AprG/P MayG/P JunG/P JulG/P AugG/P SepG/P
Howell 8/275 11/294 11/280 11/185 12/217 11/235
Heilman 16/308 10/247 14/238 16/299 15/293 7/101
Marmol 14/277 15/293 13/231 12/235 16/244 12/225

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:

Days Rest - Howell/Heilman/Marmol

Pitcher 0 days 1 day 2 days 3 days
Howell 13 19 16 9
Heilman 26* 21 18 11
Marmol 27 30 11 9

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.

Bullpen Blueprint

About the Author

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.

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