Collette Calls: Is This Heaney Happening?

Collette Calls: Is This Heaney Happening?

This article is part of our Collette Calls series.

Note: Heaney went to the IL with left shoulder discomfort as this piece was on the editor's desk. Here is to hoping this is a minor issue and he is back on the mound sooner rather than later continuing this resurgence.

Please pardon the play on words in the title, but I am rather excited about what we are seeing from Andrew Heaney out of the gate. Six months ago, I pegged him as this year's Robbie Ray but will fully admit the argument was more subjective than objective. That did not stop me from rostering him in over 50% of my leagues as I am a firm believer in backing up my written words with actions, and am thus far extremely pleased with what we have seen through two starts. Yes, the two outings have come against Minnesota and Cincinnati, two teams that are not exactly lighting up the scoreboard, but if you have watched either game you have seen a version of Heaney you had not previously seen. 

It is worth revisiting the criterion which was the foundation of the Heaney prediction back in October:

  • One good fantasy season with a career of bad ones
  • An above-average strikeout rate
  • A continual case of gopheritis thanks to a lot of flyballs
  • Perpetually bad ratios
  • Issues with splits
  • Extreme issues with the times-through-the-order penalty

None of these issues would be resolved in just two outings, but it is worth looking into what changes Heaney has made this season and

Note: Heaney went to the IL with left shoulder discomfort as this piece was on the editor's desk. Here is to hoping this is a minor issue and he is back on the mound sooner rather than later continuing this resurgence.

Please pardon the play on words in the title, but I am rather excited about what we are seeing from Andrew Heaney out of the gate. Six months ago, I pegged him as this year's Robbie Ray but will fully admit the argument was more subjective than objective. That did not stop me from rostering him in over 50% of my leagues as I am a firm believer in backing up my written words with actions, and am thus far extremely pleased with what we have seen through two starts. Yes, the two outings have come against Minnesota and Cincinnati, two teams that are not exactly lighting up the scoreboard, but if you have watched either game you have seen a version of Heaney you had not previously seen. 

It is worth revisiting the criterion which was the foundation of the Heaney prediction back in October:

  • One good fantasy season with a career of bad ones
  • An above-average strikeout rate
  • A continual case of gopheritis thanks to a lot of flyballs
  • Perpetually bad ratios
  • Issues with splits
  • Extreme issues with the times-through-the-order penalty

None of these issues would be resolved in just two outings, but it is worth looking into what changes Heaney has made this season and what progress he is making toward his goals while we all recognize that he absolutely will not maintain his 0.00 ERA and 0.68 WHIP over the course of the season. 

The biggest thing in Heaney's favor right now is that life is really good for flyball-prone pitchers with homer problems because the humidor in all 30 parks has created a friendlier environment for pitchers. Regular readers of this column know I have been on this point for the past two installments, but now we're seeing more data trickling out further supporting the new environment:

This is wonderful news for a pitcher who has had continual trouble with homers over the years as his batted-ball results have been mostly flyball heavy over the years. Heaney has a career home run rate of 1.7 per nine innings, so a new environment in which the ball does not travel as far and we have fewer homers benefits him.

A bigger benefit to him has been changing the way he pitches in a variety of ways. We can already see in two starts what the Dodgers have done with Heaney to help him on a better path forward. The changes include:

  • Changing his starting spot on the pitching rubber
  • Changing his pre-release delivery in terms of rotation and what he does with his hands
  • Finding a more consistent arm slot
  • Improving his breaking ball
  • Making it tougher for hitters to discern between his pitches early on their flight path

The first three issues are best represented in a tweet by my good buddy and new father (congrats!) Alex Fast:

From the two gifs he has in that tweet, we can take note of a few things. First, the shift on the pitching rubber toward third base. It is rather crazy Heaney was pitching so far on the first base side of the rubber against righties given his historical issues with splits because it would allow righties a better look at the baseball and really only allow him to consistently pitch inside with a breaking pitch allowing righties to hunt for fastballs on the outer half. Secondly, note the change in his hand as he rotates; the funky glove tilt is gone and has been replaced by a simple ball tap in the glove. Lastly, a reply to Alex's tweet illustrates the adjustment in his arm slot:

The mechanical tweaks were one part of the foundation, but the Dodgers do like to tweak with repertoires as well and have certainly done so with Heaney. Heaney has always been a three-pitch guy, but his repertoire looks quite different this season. Whereas last year he threw fastball, curveball and changeup, this year it is fastball, changeup and the favorite pitch of the Dodger organization: the sweeper. 

The Dodgers love the slider, and have worked with all their pitchers on a particular sweeping version of the slider. Blake Treinen, Julio Urias and Mitch White have enjoyed the pitch along with most of the staff as the Dodgers had the best team slider pitch value last year as well as the highest whiff rate with the slider. Much has been made of the sweeping slider, yet Heaney's version isn't as sweepy as the rest of the club because he never really found a comfortable grip with the slider until a regular-season bullpen while the Dodgers opened the season in Colorado. Justin Turner was quoted in a recent story about Heaney having faced him as recently as last year and vividly describes the difference between Heaney's former curveball and his new toy:

"(It's) a pretty fun little toy that seems to be really, really effective. I think it's not popping up out of his hand as much (like his old breaking ball). It's coming out more on the fastball plane. So when he's got that going down below, then the fastball that's got some late ride, makes him pretty tough."

The popping up of the curveball out of the hand was something Eno Sarris mentioned in a 2016 post at Fangraphs which quoted a few major-league players and coaches that helped hitters discern what the pitcher was throwing. That difference -- the ball coming out of his hand on the same plane as the fastball helps speak to the efforts of pitch tunneling and seam-shifted wake. Heaney is how throwing either his fastball or slider over 95% of the time and hitters have thus far struggled to discern between the two pitches as easily as they did with the previous combination. 

PITCH GROUP

SEASON

SWING%

WHIFF%

Fastballs

2019

46%

20%

Fastballs

2020

51%

28%

Fastballs

2021

48%

28%

Fastballs

2022

34%

31%

Breaking Balls

2019

47%

43%

Breaking Balls

2020

44%

41%

Breaking Balls

2021

44%

35%

Breaking Balls

2022

60%

51%

As pitching coach Mark Prior (yeah, that guy) recently told The Athletic:

"We knew the stuff was there," Prior told The Athletic after the Dodgers' 9-1 win Sunday. "The fastball stuff was there. There was some conversation, early conversations about different variations of what he wanted to do. Then obviously with the lockout, we just didn't have a lot of time. So these are things that maybe would have happened sooner, but they didn't. But here we are, and so far, so good."

Heaney is now getting a higher volume of swings at his breaking ball along with the highest swing and miss rate at the pitch in recent years. That is how this happens:

Heaney has used his fastball and slider at near identical levels, both in overall usage as well as in frequency to righties and lefties. The changeup remains something he flashes to righties only, but he has thrown just five all season compared to 131 non-changeups. One of the other dangers with Heaney has previously been an extreme problem the third time through the lineup, and that risk would continue with him essentially being a two-pitch pitcher so far. The Dodgers have the type of bullpen to help protect him from that fault and this recent injury may continue to keep him limited to a five-inning pitcher once he returns from the injured list.

The recent injury news certainly puts a damper on what was looking like a phenomenal start of the season for Heaney. The hope is that the shoulder discomfort is just something minor after the unusual winter of ramping up workload on new mechanics. He will likely come back as a 15-18 batters faced pitcher, but one with solid pitching and defense around him who can still miss plenty of bats. He may end up being more Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias moving forward, but he has certainly cast himself in a new light with the changes he and the Dodgers have made to his mechanics and repertoire.

To close, I leave you with my other good friend Nick Pollack in a long but worthwhile video breaking down what Heaney was doing this past Sunday. Pollack was a college hurler himself, and he knows his stuff. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Collette
Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Sleeper and the Bust podcast every Sunday. A ten-time FSWA finalist, Jason won the FSWA's Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2013 and the Baseball Series of the Year award in 2018 for Collette Calls.
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