Why Heilman Must Start
No doubt you think I sound like a broken record; it seems every other post I’m whining to put Aaron Heilman in the rotation.
Well now there is a more critical reason for my request: his health.
After the New York Mets made Heilman their number-one draft choice, the first thing they did was tinker with his mechanics. Why, after a successful college career, would they do such a thing? It might have seemed preposterous, but I’m guessing that a pitching coach — or coaches — took one look at his sidewinding delivery and decided he’d blow out his elbow before he ever made it to the big leagues. If that was the case, it was sound judgment, from a mechanics perspective, as there is a lot more room for error when working from an overhand release point.
Whatever the case, it became apparent that Heilman was not going to be nearly as effective as an overhand thrower, and we all know the rest of the story: he went back to his old delivery, and has been lights out since.
However, there is a major issue with his unusual mechanics. His arm angle is usually a little lower than “three-quarter” (45 degrees), and is very close to sidearm. As long as his elbow remains at the same level as his shoulder, and his fingers stay on top of the baseball upon release, there shouldn’t be any pressure on his shoulder or elbow. However, if his arm angle drops just a few degrees, to the point where his elbow is below his shoulder, he could put dangerous strain on his elbow and/or shoulder.
This isn’t my whacked-out theory, it’s proven science, and can be easily demonstrated in the comfort of your own home. Hold a baseball in your hand in say, a fastball grip. Stand up, with your arm at your side, and raise your arm straight up, holding the ball with your fingers on top of it (fingernails facing the ceiling), until it is level with your shoulder. You shouldn’t feel much stress at all in this position. Now, slowly turn your hand so that your palm is underneath the ball; you will immediately feel a strain starting in your forearm near your elbow and probably a little up into your shoulder. Imagine your arm whipping around fast enough to hurl the ball 94 MPH, and now you have an idea of what could happen to Aaron Heilman if his mechanics are just slightly off.
Generally, Heilman’s mechanics are not a concern, because he has been throwing this way for most of his life, and he’s pretty consistent with his arm slot. However, he’s no different from nearly every other pitcher, at every level of baseball, in that when he tires, his arm angle drops. It happens all the time to Mr. Willie’s starting staff just as they approach the 100-pitch count; you’ll see an overhand pitcher start to throw a little closer to three-quarter, and the fastballs will be left up a little, the curves and sliders will lose a little of their downward bite. Though there is an issue with balls suddenly flying over fences, it’s not a physical concern, because at three-quarter, the elbow is still above the shoulder and there isn’t much strain. But with Heilman starting at below three-quarter, he has much less margin for error; if he drops lower, the elbow drops below the shoulder, and there is a very real chance of him doing damage to the ligaments and tendons in his arm.
With starting pitchers, it is often very easy to spot a tired arm, because you can compare the arm angle you saw in the first inning to the one you’re seeing later in the game. With relievers, however, there’s nothing to compare to, unless you can remember to the day or two days or three days before (or whenever the reliever last pitched). And often, a pitching coach and manager are focusing more on their starter’s mechanics than on their relievers’ mechanics, specifically because they usually don’t use a reliever for more than an inning or two. So when Aaron Heilman came in relief yesterday, and the first change-up he threw was uncharacteristically over the middle of the plate, about eye-high, pitching coach Rick Peterson and/or manager Willie Randolph probably didn’t give it a second thought. When Heilman continued to miss with his pitches, they likely chalked it up to “a bad day”. After all, everyone has a bad day.
However, I could see from that first change-up, and several of his other pitches, that his arm angle was lower than it usually is. He had a hard time commanding his usually deadly change, and was leaving it up and over the heart of the plate, because his fingers were sliding off to the side and sometimes under the ball, and his elbow was clearly below his shoulder. These are red flags signifying fatigue, and a coach who knows his pitchers and is paying attention, will take a pitcher out immediately when seeing these signs.
The problem, though, is that Rick Peterson doesn’t really know Heilman’s mechanics as well as he could, because Heilman spends most of his time in the bullpen, out of Peterson’s sight. And it’s not so easy to see these things from the bench, over 100 feet away. The only reason I noticed it is because I watch every single Mets game on TV, and they always show the game from that same awful angle from the centerfield camera (I prefer the camera behind the catcher, but that’s for another post…). And lately, SNY has been doing an awesome job of replaying the pitchers’ arm slots, in slow-motion and close-up (which by the way is an amazing education for any youngsters). With the power of today’s video, coupled with a decent memory, you can see that Heilman’s delivery is slipping lower than normal.
So why does that mean he should go to the starting rotation? Simple: because Mr. Willie will continue to use Heilman in 2-inning and 3-inning situations, then use him again the very next night, and possibly again the night after that, and eventually he’s going to not only wear him out but very possibly injure him. You won’t see Heilman complain, ever, nor hear that he told Willie that he is not ready to pitch; he’s a warrior, and as long as he can stand, he’ll go out to the mound. He’ll do this until his arm falls off, and it will, if Mr. Willie continues to use him (and the rest of the bullpen) in the same manner he has been over the first 60 games of the year.
However, as a starter, Rick Peterson will keep a closer eye on Heilman’s mechanics, and see instantly when he starts to tire, because he has a frame of reference regarding his release point from the first inning. Heilman’s arm angle can be like the popper in a Perdue oven-roaster chicken: as soon as he drops below his normal angle, he’s done; bring in Bradford (or Feliciano, or Bell, or whomever). If Heilman is given four days’ rest in-between starts (which I’m sure includes some kind of build-up throwing program), there shouldn’t be an issue with fatigue and resulting injury.
There’s at least one way to get Heilman strong enough to be a starter, even this late in the season, thanks to the plethora of five-inning specialists the Mets have. For example, you can slowly move Orlando Hernandez into a spot starter/relief role. Begin by giving Heilman a week off of game duty. No throwing at all for three days, then light throwing for the next three, then rest again on the seventh day. On the eighth day, plan on he and El Duque for 6-7 innings. It doesn’t matter which one you start, just start one and give him about 3-4 innings and then go to the other. Do this for three or four more starts, keeping Heilman out of the bullpen on off days and putting El Duque (or Soler, or Dave Williams, or whomever is chosen) out there instead, until Heilman has gotten to the point where he has built up to 80-90 pitches, and can go a solid six innings. Continue to extend his pitch count as the year goes on, and I guarantee you’ll have a solid #3 starter who can occasionally complete a game by mid-August.
Before Omar starts crying about the hole in his precious bullpen, remind him how much he loves Darren Oliver and use him for more than mop-up duty. And remind Randolph of his quote, “I’ve always like Heath Bell”, and suggest that he use Bell in games once in a while. And watch and see how well El Duque (or whomever) does out of the bullpen, where you will use him as a long reliever, spot starter, and occasional seventh-inning guy. Guess what? If you have Pedro, Glavine, and Heilman consistently getting through the sixth, often getting through the seventh, and Trax getting to the seventh once out of every three starts, then you don’t need Heilman to pitch three-four times per week anymore.
I know, I know, it’ll never happen. Most likely, Mr. Willie will go right back to his World Series Game Seven Strategy and find a reason to use Heilman in at least two of the three games against the Dodgers, then again for a three-inning stint against Arizona, and in two weeks we’ll find out Aaron needs Tommy John surgery.
But at least I can dream ….