The demotion of Andrew Heaney over the weekend would have been bigger news had two things not been happening:
1) Giancarlo Stanton was selected to the All-Star Game and will be the starting designated hitter.
2) Andrew Heaney was not pitching well.
Heaney was coming off a start against the St. Louis Cardinals during which he lasted just three innings and gave up five runs, including two home runs, to a potent offense. This came after three other starts with questionable results. Overall, Heaney's 6.53 ERA and 6.16 FIP were not pretty numbers, so it made sense for Miami to send the struggling starter down.
Well, except for this one small thing that was pointed out by RotoGraphs' Mike Podhorzer.
Typical. Everyone gets caught up in the hype, blindly picks up Heaney because they hear he’s a top prospect, then give him three whole starts before dropping him? He’s displayed good control, induced lots of grounders and generated a high rate of swinging strikes. What more do you want? Oh, results? That nearly 18% HR/FB rate isn’t going to remain that high, and once that regresses to a more normal level, his low LOB% will creep back up.
That was before he gave up two more homers in his latest start and struggled badly enough to get him demoted. Prior to that last start, however, he has actually had three decent starts that have yielded poor results. Look at those lines.
Focus in on the first three starts that were boxed in red. In those starts, Heaney did give up 10 runs in 17 innings, yes. But he also struck out a respectable 12 batters, worthy of a 17.9 percent strikeout rate. And he walked just three guys, which was the exact total he walked in his 3 2/3 innings agaisnt the St. Louis Cardinals. In other words, a lot of his performance was very good.
What wasn't good? The home runs are a start, but in those three starts, Heaney put up a 52 percent ground ball rate. Guys who force that many grounders do not end up giving up three homers in their first three starts so easily. Indeed, as mentioned by Podhorzer, a whopping 18 percent of Heaney's fly balls left the yard, which is highly uncharacteristic for just about any pitcher in baseball. The highest rate of homers per fly ball among qualified starters since 2011 is Joe Blanton's mark at 16.7 percent. Only nine pitchers have a rate greater than 14 percent since 2011. Those rates are often associated with more ground ball-heavy pitchers, as ground ballers appear to allow more hard-hit fly balls when hitters get them up in the air, but that means nothing for Heaney. In just three or four starts, one cannot make a judgment on how well he will allow homers.
That means that we are left to evaluate the rest of his game. How does that 17.9 percent strikeout rate compare? Decent but unspectacular guys like Jason Hammel and Josh Collmenter have similar rates since 2011. Most of those starters post ERAs in the 4.00's.
But that underestimates Heaney's strikeout potential. Prior to his last start, he was getting swings and misses on a whopping 11 percent of total pitches. His slider was getting hitters to miss on nearly 61 percent of their swings at the pitch. That is the stuff of elite strikeout talent. Even if the adjustments would have come and hitters would have regularized that mark, you could expect Heaney's strikeouts to increase.
The one claim that fans were looking for was that Heaney needed more control. For a pitcher who was polished and had great walk rates in the minors, it was odd to see him walk three against the Cardinals. But then again, he had walked only 4.5 percent of batters faced prior to that. Before his Cardinals start, his fastball had a 1.5 to one balls to called strike ratio. This rate is along the lines of what we would expect from a pitcher with decent control, and it was better than his first start against the New York Mets.
The pitch he had a hard time controlling was the slurve that he threw, which ended up out of the zone at a rate of 4.5-to-one. But the success of that pitch was in part from getting swings and misses, which happened often enough to make up for the deficiency in called strikes. That is what eventually led to the 45 percent zone percentage that Heaney posted in his first few starts, a rate closer to Jacob Turner's than to strike pounding successes like Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez.
Perhaps the key is to work better in the zone and drop more backdoor slurves at the corners. Maybe Heaney's combination of low zone percentage and home runs is a sign of command and placement issues, the same problems that have plagued Turner. It's hard to tell in just four starts, and that is the point. Miami has little in the way of alternatives who are distinctly better than the former ninth pick of the 2012 draft, and they cannot make judgments on his future or even his 2014 season on essentially one bad start and a few unlucky ones.
Of course, Miami has a good reason for demoting Heaney now as compared to another time, and we'll get to that later today.