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Andrew Heaney’s encouraging start to 2017



Andrew Heaney has a 5.63 ERA and 7.81 FIP in his first 3 starts of 2017. That may make you question the title of this piece but a deeper look into his numbers bring up some cause for optimism.

On Monday night, Andrew Heaney toed the rubber for his 3rd MLB start of the 2017 season. His previous 2 starts were not good strictly from a run prevention stand point. In those first 2 starts since returning from Tommy John surgery, Heaney allowed 15 hits and 9 runs in 10 innings, including 7 home runs. For a pitcher returning from a major surgery, this was not something to freak out about and for a pitcher who relies more on command than pure stuff, it was too early to panic. A bright spot in those first 2 starts, however, was the 9 strikeouts he generated against the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, while walking zero batters. You could key in on those peripherals and potentially forecast a strong start coming soon.

That strong start came on Monday against the Oakland Athletics, as Heaney punched out a career high 10 hitters and allowed 1 run on 2 hits and 3 walks in his 6 innings of work. Heaney sacrificed a bit of his control to get the A’s hitters to expand out of the zone and it worked as he posted a career best 19.2% swinging strike rate in this game, well above his 9.6% career mark. Take a look at the stuff Heaney had on display Monday night.

As mentioned before, Heaney has long been touted as a command before stuff pitcher so this jump in swing and misses through his 1st 3 starts has been a bit of a surprise. What isn’t surprising is the jump in swing and misses is probably correlated to a jump in velocity. Thanks to the wonderful website brooksbaseball.net, we can view all sorts of charts and in this case, velocity charts. Here are Andrew Heaney’s average velocities by each game over his career.

screen-shot-2017-08-29-at-4-28-08-pm.png?w=811&h=395Andrew Heaney velocity by game

Immediately, you’ll notice the average velocity on his fastball, which is classified as a sinker on Brooks Baseball based on vertical and horizontal movement. Through 3 starts, Andrew Heaney is throwing harder than ever. In fact, his start on Monday night proved to be his hardest throwing night of his MLB career, as he averaged 93.12 mph on his sinker. The previous start was Heaney’s 2nd hardest throwing night in his career, where he averaged 93.06 mph on his sinker. Both starts came at Angel Stadium so it’s fair to question if the gun was potentially hot but based on the swings and misses Heaney got, it’s also fair to wonder if Heaney’s stuff is just better so far. Through 3 starts, Heaney has a very healthy strikeout minus walk%(K-BB%) of 23.2%, which is much higher than his 13.1% career mark. He has struck out 19 batters and only walked 3 in his 16 innings of work, which are pretty gaudy totals for a pitcher with Heaney’s track record of not striking out loads of batters.

Heaney’s stuff is better and that’s noteworthy in itself but there’s a little more to him just striking out more batters. Heaney has altered his arm angles and he’s adjusted his positioning on the rubber. Check out the Heaney’s horizontal release point.

screen-shot-2017-08-29-at-4-45-54-pm.png?w=803&h=395Andrew Heaney’s horizontal release point

This is a drastic change in release point for any pitcher, let alone one who just missed over a full year of game action due to surgery. It seems rather likely that Heaney dug into the stats during his down time and tried to make some tweaks to the way he positioned his body and his arm actions on the mound. Video backs up these changes, as Heaney has totally changed his position on the mound. Look at the difference of where Heaney’s back foot is on the rubber in a start from 2015 compared to his start on Monday night vs Oakland.

screen-shot-2017-08-29-at-4-44-29-pm.png?w=1098&h=668Andrew Heaney 2015 start(via MLB video)screen-shot-2017-08-29-at-4-45-12-pm.png?w=1266&h=669Andrew Heaney on Monday 8/28/17(Via MLB video)

Heaney has switched from the first base side of the rubber over the third base side of the rubber, which is a drastic change but one many pitchers make if their results aren’t good. This change especially makes sense for a pitcher like Heaney, who faced dramatic platoon splits before this season. As a lefty who placed himself on the 1st base side of the rubber, this may have allowed right handed hitters to get a better look at his release point. Consider this: Lefties hit just .228/.261/.307 against Heaney in 2015, his first full big league season, but righties hit .252/.321/.402 against him. His K-BB% vs lefties in 2015 was 21.8% while it was a measly 7.8% vs righties. While righties have torched Heaney to a .268/.316/.722 clip in 2017, his K-BB% is 25.4% against righties, which is a phenomenal rate for a lefty pitcher throwing to right handed hitters.

Another small tweak that Heaney has already made in 2017 is adjusting his vertical release point, which was significantly lower in his 1st 2 starts. That subtle difference may explain the home run issues he had, as a lower release point usually means less plane on your pitches, which means pitches come on a more ideal plane for hitters. Heaney seemingly picked up on his release point quickly and got it back to his usual level in his past start, which probably explains why he had a career best outing on Monday night.

screen-shot-2017-08-29-at-5-01-34-pm.png?w=807&h=397Andrew Heaney Vertical Release Point 

All of these changes Heaney has made has led to a potentially better version than even his biggest fans thought he’d be. A 3 game sample of games is too small to draw huge conclusions but there are some very encouraging signs that Heaney is showing so far. It’s also fair to acknowledge that his past start came against an Athletics lineup whose #3 hitter was Jed Lowrie, whose an owner of a career 101 wRC+. Striking out 20% of batters against any MLB lineup is impressive regardless but we’ll need to see this over a larger sample. The home run issue is likely a small blip on the radar(7 home runs in 2 games is an anomaly) but if these bat missing improvements are real, the upside for Heaney maybe changes from a potential 3/4 starter, which Fangraphs labeled him in 2015, to a potential #2 starter. Lefties who average 93 mph on their fastball, have 2 above average off speed pitches and generate 27.5% strikeout rates are hard to find and that’s the current 2017 version of Heaney. Proceed with cautious optimism but there are reasons to be excited about Andrew Heaney moving forward.

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