February 28, 2014
Bush League: Andrew Heaney
Lefty starter Andrew Heaney was chosen by the Miami Marlins with the ninth overall selection of the 2012 draft, taken out of Oklahoma State University. He was the fifth pitcher taken in the top nine picks, and the second southpaw (behind Max Fried). Ranked no. 30 on the BP Top 101 prospect list, Heaney has enjoyed a seamless transition to pro ball, and though his strikeout rate doesn't jump off the page, his strong command has fueled excellent run prevention.
Heaney has been very consistent in his run suppression, as the lefty has allowed more than two earned runs just three times in his 24 career starts. He gave up earnies in only four of his 12 starts in the Florida State League in 2013, otherwise raining zeroes all over his game log. He gave up runs in five of his six Double-A outings, though he kept the damage to a minimum. Heaney was held to a low pitch count, exceeding 87 pitches in a single Southern League contest, though he pitched six or more innings in four of his six games due to his pitch-count efficiency, with a rain-shortened game standing in the way of a five-for-six. He also kept a tight noose on home runs, allowing just four jacks in his 95.3 total innings of work.
Jason Parks and the BP prospect crew put a grade of 6+ on Heaney's fastball, describing it as “a creeper pitch in the low-mid-90s” that “can touch 96 when he needs it,” and placed a similar 6+ grade on the potential of his slider. The changeup earned a 5+ on the potential scale, representing a common scenario in which an off-speed pitch is a focal point of development for pitchers who already possess a solid heater and breaking pitch.
Heaney's home games for Double-A Jacksonville are available on MiLB.tv, and I took in a few starts while researching for the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide. I wanted to see how he looked on his good days as well as the rare start when he struggled, so the first game under the microscope was his career-worst outing on August 6th versus the Tennessee Smokies. He lasted only three innings in that game, coughing up five runs (all earned) and nine hits to go with two walks and a pair of strikeouts. The opposing pitcher was Erik Jokisch, who threw a nine-inning no-hitter to add to the agony.
The actual results of Heaney's outing were not nearly as terrible as the numbers suggest. His defense did the southpaw absolutely no favors, starting with a leadoff double down the third-base line by Matt Szczur (pronounced “Caesar”) that would have likely been a 5-3 groundout in the majors. The next batter hit a grounder up the middle that was not gloved despite the shortstop holding the runner on second, scoring the run while the batter ended up on second base after a series of poor throws. It was the first run that Heaney had allowed in 33 innings. The three-hole hitter was uber-prospect Javier Baez, who ripped a legitimate two-bagger to the opposite field that scored the second run of the game.
Heaney was down 3-0 when he went back to the dugout after the first frame, the most runs that he had given up in a game to that point of the year. He sat in the 90-92 mph range with the heater and was doing a good job of keeping the ball down in the zone with both his fastball and his slider. He was a little bit around the strike zone, but was not missing targets by much despite the crooked number on the scoreboard.
Heaney mixed in plenty of first-pitch sliders to keep batters on their toes, as well as the occasional changeup on his initial offering. Heaney greeted cleanup hitter Justin Bour with el cambio in the second inning and finished him off with a slider for his second K of the game, with Bour playing the victim role on both punchouts.
The lefty spent most of the game pitching from the stretch, and he continued to bury fastballs under the zone into the third inning, a strategy that resulted in a five-pitch walk to John Andreoli despite Heaney staying within spitting range of his targets. Heaney also surrendered a double-steal in the frame, accounting for two of the three thefts against him on the day. The double-swipe occurred on his first pitch to opposing pitcher Jokisch, who would eventually knock an RBI single for his second hit of a game in which he didn't allow any safeties to the opposition.
Heaney righted the ship after his roughest outing of the season. Two starts later, on August 17th against the Birmingham Barons, Heaney allowed just a single tally over five frames before rain soaked the game to an abbreviated finish. The Barons mustered just a pair of hits and a walk, striking out five times against the Marlins' top prospect before the game was called on account of showers. His command was on at the start of the game, such that catcher J.T. Realmuto didn't have to budge his glove from its setup for the first half-dozen pitches. Heaney froze Jared Mitchell on a breaking ball in the first, registering the backwards K with a pitch that had different shape to its movement than in the previous game.
The pitch brought to mind the prescient words of Professor Parks in his writeup of Heaney, in which the breaker was described as, “plus offering; multiple looks; can throw in the zone or chase; good vertical depth.”
Heaney fell behind Trayce Thompson 3-1 before a knee-high fastball was blasted out of the yard. It was a decent pitch on which Thompson had to break out the nine-iron, but the fastball, which was intended to be on the number nine of the strike-zone keypad, instead drifted over the middle-third of the plate.
Heaney's fastball was parked in the 90-92 mph range for the first couple of innings, but he was able to reach for a bit more heat in tough situations. He spiked a 93 the second time that he faced Thompson, though Heaney eventually lost that battle as well, resulting in double to the right-center field gap as Thompson recorded the only two hits off of the southpaw in the contest.
The rain was really coming down by the fourth inning, and Heaney began pouring it on as the field became more saturated. He found the extra fire in his matchup with Brandon Jacobs, finishing with some extra oomph on a 93-mph fastball that produced the empty swing for the three-pitch strikeout.
Heaney did walk his only batter of the game during the fifth, with a series of arm-side misses that indicated that he may have been rushing a bit to get the game into the official books. But he finished the job to close out the big W, requiring just 69 pitches to encompass the five innings, and he got stronger as the game progressed with four of the final eight outs coming via the strikeout.
Mechanics Report Card
Heaney has excellent balance with stability in all three planes throughout the delivery. Such an exceptional foundation is rarely seen in a pitcher his age, as balance typically solidifies as a pitcher gains functional strength and fills out physically, and it is particularly rare to see these elements in a minor-league southpaw. Adding to the positive impression is that Heaney has improved his balance since the 2012 season, in which he had a tendency to lean back during the stride phase. The near-elite balance results in plus posture, factors which make it easier for him to find a consistent release point.
Underlying the impressive stability is a below-average pace to the plate, as Heaney “stays back” without adjusting his balance point. The issue is compounded from the stretch, with his first move actually drifting backward before getting his energy going toward the plate. Most pitchers who are slow from the windup will speed things up from the stretch, but this is not the case with Heaney, who preserves his time signature while shrinking his leg lift. It's not quite a slide step, but the tactic of altering the style of leg lift is nonsensical for a left-handed pitcher, given the advantages inherent for southpaws in holding runners chained to the bag. The numbers are damning, with opposing baserunners going 19-for-20 on stolen base attempts last season, a factor which further supports the notion that Heaney should stick to a regular lift when pitching from the stretch.
Heaney has a slightly closed stride, adding to his deception such that batters get a late look at the baseball. He also utilizes a 50-50 contribution of hips and shoulders to generate plus torque, with some upper-body load combined with a delay of trunk rotation. He also executes the finer elements that contribute to a deceptively-deep release point, such as a stable glove and an athletic position after foot strike to help get him closer to the plate, factors that help to make up for the modest momentum.
The Marlins have established themselves in the player development department, particularly with their young pitchers, and Heaney is likely to be hanging out with Jose Fernandez in Miami in the not-too-distant future.