Aaron Heilman: Dispelling the Myths

If the Mets don’t move Aaron Heilman as part of a package to land a front-end starter, they would be remiss not to try him out for a rotation spot.

Nearly every other MLB organization values a starting pitcher over a setup reliever — and most feel that a pitcher with the potential to be a good starter is more valuable than even a great closer. For example, the Red Sox are having no qualms about moving Jon Papelbon out of the bullpen and into the back end of their starting rotation — this despite the fact that the young fireballer was absolutely dominant in the ninth inning, with a 0.92 ERA and 35 saves. Also despite the fact that the Red Sox already added Daisuke Matsuzaka, have an overabundance of starters, and have no one with any kind of closing experience to fill the void.

If the Red Sox situation doesn’t convince you, consider the reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, who are moving BOTH of their setup men — Adam Wainright and Braden Looper — into the rotation. They’re doing this even though their main closer Jason Isringhausen is a question mark.

Oh, and before the Yankees acquired Kei Igawa and Andy Pettitte, they seriously considered moving solid setup man Scott Proctor to the rotation — again, leaving a considerable void in the ‘pen.

Still, the Mets have been wary of moving Heilman to the rotation, going so far as to allow circus freaks such as Jose Lima make several forgettable starts in 2006. And there are detractors with all kinds of reasons not to move him — from newspaper columnists to bloggers to fans. Most of these reasons are based on half-truths, however, so forthwith are truisms to dispel the Heilman myths.

1. Aaron Heilman is more valuable to the team as a reliever than as a starter

With the emergence of Duaner Sanchez and Guillermo Mota, the acquisitions of Jon Adkins, Ambiorix Burgos, Scott Schoeneweis, and Jason Standridge, and the return to health of Juan Padilla, the Mets have plenty of depth to support the shift of Heilman to the rotation. The Mets’ previous reasoning was that Heilman was much more valuable to the team by being available 3-4 times per week in relief, rather than the one or two times he’d be used as a starter. Assuming Sanchez and Padilla return to 100% health, and Mota can pitch similarly to his September 2006 performance upon his return, the Mets have three solid options for the 8th inning. Burgos closed for the Royals, and may be this year’s Sanchez in a 7th or 8th-inning role. Adkins has plenty of middle relief experience, and Schoeneweis was signed to be a vital part of the ‘pen. Assuming Sanchez is healthy, last year’s myth no longer holds water.

Let’s also add this: if Heilman is a starter, there’s a good chance he’ll be at least a 6-inning pitcher, and there’s enough reason to believe he might be a 7-8-inning guy. Anytime a starter can go deep in a ballgame, you’re putting less pressure on the bullpen — thereby balancing out Heilman’s departure. Looking at the current contestants for the #3-5 spots, it looks like a bunch of 5-inning starters. Even El Duque and Tommy Glavine are question marks to get past the sixth, with their advancing age. This rotation MUST FIND an innings-eater, and maybe that guy could be Heilman. We won’t know until he’s given the chance.

2. Aaron Heilman does not have good numbers as an MLB starter.
Looking solely at the numbers, that’s a true statement. However, numbers don’t always tell the whole story. While it’s true that Heilman’s career record as an MLB starter is 5-13 with a 5.93 ERA, you really can’t count any of the numbers from 2003 and 2004, because that’s when he was throwing with a more overhand, unnatural motion. People forget that the first thing the Mets did with their much-heralded #1 pick was change his pitching motion — an adjustment that never really “took”. Just before camp broke in 2005, Willie Randolph, Rick Peterson, and Heilman had a discussion that saved his career as a Met, when it was revealed to Randolph that Heilman had been pitching with a different style from his successful years at Notre Dame. On the brink of being sent back to the minors, Randolph suggested, “well just do what you used to do — you’ve got nothing to lose”. Within a week, Heilman was not only throwing more effectively, Randolph was impressed enough to plug him into the rotation for a while.

So forget the career stats, and look at Heilman’s numbers as a starter FROM THAT POINT FORWARD:

7 GS | 42 IP | 34K | 12 BB | 4.37 ERA | 1.19 WHIP | 2-3 W/L | 1 CG (SHO)

It’s a VERY small sample — but consider that many fans, writers, and pundits are penciling Oliver Perez into the rotation based on 7 regular-season games and two postseason starts that totaled 11 innings.

What do you think … if you didn’t know those were Heilman’s numbers up there, would you consider adding a pitcher to the rotation with a 1.19 WHIP, 7.3 K/9 ratio, 4.37 ERA, and one complete-game shutout out of seven tries? And a guy who averaged 6 innings per start? Sounds a lot better than Joe Blanton, eh? In fact, it’s comparable to what Danny Haren has shown.

3. Aaron Heilman doesn’t throw enough pitches to be a starter.
This is based on the idea that all Heilman throws is a fastball and a change-up. Well, here’s a newsflash: he also throws a slider — though he rarely has used it in his relief role.

And in any case, a starter doesn’t need more than a fastball and change, provided that those two pitches are excellent. That said, consider that Heilman doesn’t just throw a fastball — he throws a nasty sinker, as well as a tailing fastball and a four-seamer. That’s three pitches, all of which range from 92 – 95 MPH. His changeup is considered by many to be one of the top 5 in all of MLB. He hasn’t used the slider much as a reliever because his #1 and #2 are so good, he doesn’t need it to get guys out. In the early 1980s, Mario Soto was considered one of the most dominating starters in the NL — and he threw “only” a fastball and a change-up. When you throw a sinker as nasty as Heilman’s, and can place it as well as he does, you don’t need much more than to change speeds. Watch Brandon Webb sometime, and count how many times he goes to his curveball — not many. 90% of his pitches are sinking fastballs and changeups — and he is one of the best righthanders in the NL. Similarly, Johan Santana relies mostly on his fastball and changeup, and mixes in an occasional slider. Now I’m not saying that Heilman’s talent approaches Santana’s — all we’re pointing out is that he does have three pitches, and a starter can not only survive but reach elite status with a limited repertoire.

4. Aaron Heilman is a selfish whiner with a bad attitude, and doesn’t deserve to start.

This is one of the more ridiculous claims. First of all, Heilman has never publicly complained about being in the bullpen. He has said that he prefers to start, but never said he didn’t want to be in the bullpen. He’s always added to his statements “… but I’ll do whatever is necessary, whatever is best for the team.”

There were even people who thought Heilman purposely pitched poorly in relief, especially after Jose Lima, Alay Soler and Jeremi Gonzalez were given chances to start. Those people did not realize that BECAUSE of those replacements turning out poor performances, and taxing the bullpen, Heilman was used more often than ever before. Heilman wasn’t purposely pitching poorly — he was being overused! Heilman was being put into games more frequently than any time in his life, and as a result he was getting tired and his mechanics were breaking down. Anyone watching closely could see his arm angle dropping — a primary signal of fatigue. After getting some rest — Duaner Sanchez was doing most of the dirty work — Heilman returned to form, just after Sanchez went down.

Still, there are those who think Heilman should “just consider himself lucky to be in the bigs and keep his mouth shut”. Yeah, well, I think there is something to be said for a guy who believes in himself, is unwavering in his goals, and has the chutzpah to stand up to management and express his feelings. It’s the mark of supreme confidence, of cockiness, and leadership. Aren’t these the qualities you want from a starting pitcher?

There you go … four of the most popular Aaron Heilman myths debunked. Feel free to drop me a line or post your own opinion.

Hot Stove

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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