Midseason Analysis: Aaron Heilman
It wasn’t so long ago that Aaron Heilman was “too valuable” to be moved out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation — despite his desire to be a starter. Now, there’s question as to whether he has any value as a reliever, and no one’s considering that he be transitioned anywhere — except, perhaps, to New Orleans.
Though Heilman’s 2006 was up and down, for the most part he was highly effective in his middle relief / setup relief role, and was counted on to continue bridging the eighth inning toward Billy Wagner in the absence of Duaner Sanchez in 2007. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out well, as Heilman is gradually being pushed out of setup relief and into the middle innings.
His inconsistency has been frustrating, to say the least, especially to those who witnessed his remarkable work in 2005 and down the stretch in 2006. It’s possible he’s not 100% returned from minor elbow surgery executed immediately after the 2006 season, though it seems more likely that he’s simply not fit to be an everyday reliever. His best work has been performed with judicious rest between appearances, and his mechanics break down considerably (low elbow at release point, pushing the ball with fingers underneath) as he pitches more frequently. Nonetheless, Willie Randolph continues to trot him out there on a nearly daily basis — pulling a page from the Joe Torre book, How to Burn Out a Bullpen.
There was a time when Heilman was a genuinely reliable reliever — the kind of guy you could count on most of the time. This year, he’s become the Braden Looper of the middle innings — causing you to sit on the edge of your seat, fingers crossed, hoping to the baseball gods he’ll get through the inning unscathed. The homerun ball has been a major bugaboo, seemingly carried over from Yadier Molina’s bomb in the NLCS. In truth, the homeruns have nothing to do with a mental issue — the problem is his previously devastating changeup is usually high, flat, and fat.
As long as Aaron’s arm angle continues to drop, he will not be an effective pitcher — reliever, starter, or otherwise (though maybe in softball). Since the low release point is most likely tied to fatigue, the only hope for him is to be used less frequently — which is only a possibility if the Mets can find another effective reliever somewhere. Trouble is, Randolph hasn’t yet put together the fact that the more he pitches, the worse he pitches — he’s on pace to pitch in more games than last year’s career high of 74 appearances. That said, expect similar inconsistency in the second half, and hope that someone has the sense to move him back into a starting role before spring training 2008.