I can hear you sigh and whisper after reading the headline. I mean, Andrew Heaney? Really? Isn’t that the guy that has been on the verge of a breakout every season for the last five years?
Exactly, that Andrew Heaney.
The first thing we should know about Heaney is that he’s been injured a lot. I mean a lot, as you can see in his Injury Timeline Tableau — an amazing tool by Derek Rhoads — where you can check the injury history for any MLB player. You’ll find that Heaney has spent an inordinate number of days on the IL: 419. That’s one of the reasons he hasn’t been able to meet expectations and is my biggest word of caution about him.
In this regard, the good news is that the bulk of those IL days happened before mid-2019. After that, Heaney has been, relatively (at least for him), injury-free.
- By mid-2019, Heaney was basically a four-seam fastball and curveball pitcher.
- His fastball was being mislabeled as a sinker due to the high spin rate it developed (more on that later).
- He has a pretty decent changeup but doesn’t use it enough.
- Allows way too many home runs.
That’s, in a nutshell, the Andrew Heaney story pre-2020, so what’s changed in the last year to merit a new narrative?
Heaney’s fastball has one of the highest spin rates in MLB; he’s been consistent with it for a long time, and that has led to the unusual situation where even though he sits at around 91-92 mph with it, it has enough movement to be effective. What has been different is that since 2019 his four-Seamer’s active spin is over 99%. Heaney’s fastball spin contributes to the ball movement, making it harder to hit and a more effective offering. This spin increase made him 17th in fastball horizontal movement vs average for 2020. For a pitcher without elite velo, this is a big deal.
But what really caught my attention can be summarized in the following graph:
Although he’d used three different pitches in more or less the same proportion for the last four seasons (60% fastball, 25% curveball, 15% changeup), it has always been a hit-or-miss situation with them. In 2017, his curveball was better when measured under the Run Values stat at -1, in 2018 it was his changeup at -6, and in 2019 it was the fastball (incorrectly labeled in Savant as a sinker) at -3.
At the same time, in each season with a negative Run-Value pitch, the other two pitches in his repertoire were on the positive side of RV, which is the wrong side as Run Value is a very useful way to summarize an equivalency of how many runs each kind of pitch saved (for negative values) or added (for positive ones) in general.
But then, in 2020, he managed to be effective with all three pitches and their RV was -2 for each of them, meaning that he could expect to have similar results from any of the pitches in his arsenal. This is big for him, and for any pitcher, because it translates into the confidence that he can mix his pitches in order to deceive batters without the added burden of doubting the effectiveness of what he is throwing.
On the same subject of confidence, according to Jeff Zimmerman, Heany bought during the offseason his own Rapsodo pitching device to work on trying to be less predictable and embracing further analyses of his movements and grips, something that, it seems, he was reluctant to work on before.
Perhaps related, the limited data we have from Spring Training shows that he has added 1.6 mph to his fastball while maintaining his high spin rate, which could translate into elite displacements again. This, for a pitcher of his characteristics, is a major breakthrough.
|Name||speX||IP||pCRA||K-BB%||CSW||O-Swing + Zone%|
For those of you unfamiliar with speX, it is an aggregate stat that I created (with Jeff Nichols) that combines some very effective stats like CSW, K/BB%, pCRA, and O-Swing% + Zone% into a single, weighted, scaled from 1-100, and ranking them for future performance estimation purposes. You can read about it here and here you can find a leaderboard for the 2020 and 2019-2020 samples.
With fewer innings pitched, Heaney’s peripheral numbers are pretty similar to those from that trio of well-regarded pitchers and indicate what we could expect from him.
One final encouraging sign for Heaney is that his gopheritis, while still not a thing of the past, has dropped from 1.89 HR/9 in 2019 to 1.22 HR/9 in 2020 (his career average is 1.52 HR/9). Similarly, his HR/FB ratio fell from 18.3% to 12.3%, while he has increased his GB% from 33.6% in 2019 to 39% in 2020.
To be honest, there are still a few worrying things about Heaney: I would love to see him less dependent on his four-Seamer and get him to throw his curveball and his changeup more, so he could develop better sequences to deceive the batters. A more balanced pitch mix could be helpful, especially if all three can remain strong run-value pitches. It is a good sign that he is aware of this, and he did his off-season homework, let’s hope it translates into his performance.
Also, we can’t be sure if he will not lose time to the IL. His past record is scary, but it has improved, so this might be the year we get to see him healthy, confident, and a more mature pitcher with a better mix.
If things fall into the right places, and with a bit of luck, Andrew Heaney will finally prove to the world what is he really made of.
Photos by Nick Tre. Smith and Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)