For three straight years before he even played a major league game, Andrew Heaney was ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects. There was a buzz about him coming up, and he was considered the Marlins’ No. 1 prospect after the 2013 season. A polished young arm with great command and an elite slider, he was expected to hit the ground running.
After starting the season with a dominant stretch in Double-A, Heaney was mediocre in Triple-A but received a big league summons. In five starts last season with the Marlins, he posted a 5.83 ERA and allowed six homers in 29 1/3 innings. Not good.
Three months later, in the span of 24 hours in December, he was traded twice. Two teams simply preferred to have other players, and though the pitcher had fun with it …
.. some of the shine had come off his prospect status in the process.
And now? The Angels rookie has a fine 3.29 ERA and 1.16 WHIP as he starts Thursday night in Texas with the Angels’ season hanging in the balance. He has recovered most of the excitement around his future, and all it took was two tiny tweaks that helped the young left-hander make the most of his stuff.
Don’t Baby the Change
A pitcher’s changeup is supposed to be slower than his fastball; that’s how it got its name. The change of pace is what it’s all about, and that change of pace is supposed to be around a double-digit difference in miles per hour.
When a pitcher specifically tries to affect a change of pace, he often telegraphs the pitch with his slowdown in arm speed. By dragging the arm (or the body in general), the pitcher can deaden the velocity while also making it more apparent that he’s throwing a changeup. That’s called “babying” the changeup, apparently. “Coming up, I was trying to baby the changeup in there and get that velocity difference,” Heaney told me before a recent game.
If you look around baseball, though, there’s a new approach happening with the changeup. Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke are throwing hard changeups and having great success. The average differential between a starters’ fastball and change has gone down from 9.4 mph in 2007 to 8.6 mph this year, and it’s been a steady drop.
Heaney’s differential has followed suit, as his changeup has gotten harder every month he’s been in the big leagues.
Of course, a smaller velocity gap has to come with more movement, or it’s useless. And Heaney’s changeup hasn’t gotten more movement as this gap has narrowed. But something has changed to make it seem like his changeup has more movement now, and that’s due to his other tweak.
Throw Straight to the Plate
Part of the reason Heaney gets such great movement on his pitches is that the throws from a lower arm slot. But that arm slot, and his old mechanics, also got him in trouble. He was throwing side-to-side and across his body instead of downhill.
The Angels wanted him to work on that. “We wanted to stay through the baseball, in a lane toward the plate,” Heaney said. The main adjustment was a matter of inches, though. “I had my heel off the rubber, just 1 inch, and once you get to the plate, that 1 inch can turn into a foot and a half,” the pitcher explained.
By adjusting (twisting) his heel on the rubber about an inch, Heaney became more “straight to the plate,” and found that his pitches had more life with the change. The old way caused him to “be flatter coming in and not have as much of an angle” on his pitches. So a little work on being directional, retraining his body to go where he wanted it to go, and he found that the new delivery “took some stress off” his shoulder and lat muscles, too.
How did that change show up in his pitches? By making his pitches look different. By altering the movement on his four-seamer, he made his changeup look like it was moving more. “I felt like I got better life on the fastball, and it was riding through the zone with more ride and aggressiveness to it,” he said. In other words, when he talks about adding “life” on the fastball, he’s talking about the idea that his fastball had more “rise” (that is, it dropped less than it used to, which made the drop on his changeup appear more severe).
Take a look at the relative difference between the vertical and horizontal movement of his fastball and changeup. The graph clearly shows more separation between the two pitches. In the graph below, the difference between the two pitches horizontally is the second curve (in blue) and vertically is the top curve (in red). Both differences increase over time.
His fastball and changeup used to have identical horizontal movement, now the change has nearly an inch and a half more glove-side run. The changeup used to drop less than three inches more than his sinker, now it drops nearly five inches more.
When Harry Pavlidis did his excellent research on what makes a great changeup, and found that movement was more important than velocity, he defined changeup movement relative to the pitcher’s fastball movement. So, by giving his fastball more life with a mechanical change, Heaney effectively made his changeup move more.
The Angels’ Heaney has always had good command. His slider is getting the fourth-most whiffs among starters, behind Carlos Carrasco, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. That’s pretty good. The question has always been the changeup, and a few tweaks — a different approach and a twist of the heel — have allowed Heaney to keep showing good results on the pitch, even as he throws it more often.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.