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 ….

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. […] Aaron Heilman’s arm angle is still too low. And I noticed him shaking his arm after releasing the ball, something I never noticed before. I really hope I’m wrong about his mechanics being off. If I’m correct, I want Rick Peterson hanged, Mr. Willie shot, and Omar executed by Chinese water torture. […]
  2. Bullpen Injuring Heilman?…

    Joe at MetsToday makes a point (reiterated today) that I’d never heard before — and that really scares me — about Aaron Heilman moving to the rotation.  Basically, he says that because of Heilman’s mechanics, he’s more vu…

  3. […] After the game, nearly every blog message, radio broadcaster, and radio caller speculated that Aaron Heilman is pouting and/or suggested that he is purposely sabotaging his relief appearances because he wants to start. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I pointed out two weeks ago, Heilman’s mechanics are off. His elbow is often dropping below his shoulder, his fingers are beneath the ball on the release of many of his pitches, and as a result he has no control of where the ball is going. When a pitcher doesn’t know where the ball is going, he loses his confidence. No control + no confidence = Heilman’s current situation. Early in the year, Heilman exuded confidence, and a swagger, and commanded the ball all over the strike zone. He put it where he wanted it, and got batters out seemingly at will. Mr. Willie then overused him, he fatigued, as he fatigued his arm angle dropped, and here we are at a point where not only is his release point screwed up, but we can only hope he has not started to injure his elbow and/or shoulder. When the Mets’ staff is going to notice what is going on and make an adjustment, I don’t know. I suppose they’ll wait until something snaps and Aaron goes on the 60-day DL. Then maybe someone will consider comparing video of him in April and June. But then it will be too late. […]
  4. […] 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. […]
  5. […] Well, it IS a minor injury, but it is a glaring sign of Willie Randolph’s abuse of Aaron Heilman. I hate to say “I told you so” (actually, that’s not true, I LOVE to say that), but this injury is without a doubt the direct result of Heilman’s overuse in the first half of 2006, which concerned me to the point of writing this post on Heilman’s arm angle. Have a look at what I stated as early as game 55 of the season — it’s free and will only take about five minutes. […]
  6. […] My guess is no, and the Mets need another setup guy to appear, or step — sooner rather than later. Heilman’s spring tendinitis was likely the result of throwing too much too soon. He was given a shot and about a week of rest, but that’s no guarantee the tendinitis won’t flare up again, considering Heilman’s already fragile elbow and his pitching motion — which once again is is off kilter. Already, Heilman is getting his elbow too high when he takes the ball back, and in turn that causes a release point that is too low — closer to Joe Smith’s sidearm angle than Heilman’s optimum three-quarter slot. That low release is giving his changeup some hellacious movement, but it is taking away velocity from his fastball and causing it to run flat and high, rather than with sink. In addition, the low release point puts more strain on the elbow. This issue needs to get fixed fast. […]
  7. […] those who signed on here late, you can check these links: Aaron Heilman’s Elbow, Why Heilman Must Start, Heilman In the Pen, Another Heilman Harangue, Haren, Heilman or Harden (which eerily looks as […]
  8. Making Room for Wise -- Mets Today May 5, 2008 at 10:08 am
    […] about him returning to the rotation (if you joined us late, check out: Aaron Heilman’s Elbow, Why Heilman Must Start, Heilman In the Pen, Another Heilman Harangue, Haren, Heilman or Harden, or Heilman or Bannister. […]