I like Andrew Heaney. I think you should too but let’s start with me.
I like Heaney’s control. Save for his five-game 2017 season, Heaney’s 7.3% walk rate this year is the highest of any MLB season, fueled by a sinker hitting the zone over 58% of the time and a changeup he trusts for a 47% zone rate.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t feel there was a question about Heaney’s ability to perform, which wasn’t the case early in the year. Through the first eight starts of the year, there was a strong consensus that Heaney could excel for a considerable amount of time, sporting a 3.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 27% K rate, and a fantastic 12% whiff rate to support the elevated strikeout numbers.
However, Heaney ran into a pair of 5 ER games and suddenly it seemed doomed. It launched a stretch of 5.09 ERA with just a 16.7% K rate and the fun was coming to an end. Sure, the WHIP was still acceptable and walk rate was under 5%, but we were celebrating Heaney for the good ratios and strikeouts and it just wasn’t happening.
I started this article talking about Heaney’s control. It’s easily one of his best attributes and entering the year, we considered it as one of the only strong assets. For the most part, save for the “all around” types that are so hard to depend on, either we classify a starter’s value in good command/control arms or high strikeout ability. Heaney has always had the control, but what I’m believing in suddenly is the strikeout rate.
Bringing the tangent back, let’s look at Heaney’s biggest trend this year. Here are the whiff rates for Heaney’s first eight starts and the six that followed. I’ve color coded it glamourously to help:
This is why we were worried. You should have been! The hype around Heaney is derived from the sudden mix of both control and whiffs and this looked damning. We felt the dread of a fun ride coming to its end, squeaking slowing to the entrance.
Except that’s not what happened. Let’s add his most recent two starts to that wonderful table:
So what happened? Why did Heaney go through the down period and how did he return the two best whiff games of his season in his last two starts?
Simply put, his changeup wasn’t good for a moment. But it is again. Seriously, it’s that easy. Just look at this super telling chart:
Clearly we’re going to talk about Heaney’s changeup. Here are its numbers across the season thus far:
|Usage %||O-Swing %||Zone %||Whiff %||BAA||GB %|
Heaney’s slow ball is a fantastic offering and keep in mind, those season numbers include the stretch of six poor games with the pitch. Heaney uses it as a jack of all trades, as his money pitch to pull out in a big moment.
I’m going to have some fun with this, really showing the difference between the good and bad stretches and linking it with Heaney’s changeup. First, this how the pitch it looked like during his initial stretch:
And a heatmap of its locations:
Notice how when missing outside to right-handers, the pitch is still close enough to the plate that it could be framed for a strike or at least still be considered by hitters and not completely spit on.
Compare that to the slow ball during a stretch where he fanned four or fewer in all but one game:
A pair of HRs on changeups that didn’t have nearly the same vertical drop and were located in very hittable locations, either back inside to a right-hander or spotted in the middle of the plate.
And now its locations during this time:
Those outside changeups were now completely wasted. No considerations from right-handers and little play with the outside corner. Either a definitive strike or not, save for the bottom of the zone.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that back-to-back ten strikeout performances from Heaney are a product of good changeups, but let’s still complete the process. Here’s a GIF of its movement:
And its locations:
This is prime Heaney. He’s come back on the other side and made the adjustment to fix his best pitch. Indulge me as I unnecessarily emphasize this point one more time:
Changeup pVal in first 8 games: 5.0
Changeup pVal in next 6 games: -4.2
Changeup pVal in last 2 games: 2.2
I like Andrew Heaney.
There are still questions about what to expect from Heaney in the second half and it’s understandable. Two starts isn’t enough of a sample to determine what will happen in the next ten weeks – you could even argue the entire first half isn’t enough – and we could be back to where we sat in the sad month of June.
What I see is a pitcher that had the feel for a pitch, struggled for a collection of starts, and has reclaimed his ability once again. We’ve seen other starters go through similar journeys with a pitch in their repertoire – Jose Berrios and his curveball come to mind – and we’re often too quick to ignore the adjustments made through the season. Heaney faced the wall, adjusted, it’s time to take advantage of it.
You should like Andrew Heaney.