2016 Statistics: 49 G, 48.0 IP, 1.69 ERA, 55 SO, 14 BB (AA/AAA)
10 G, 7.0 IP, 6.43 ERA, 6 SO, 4 BB (MLB)
2017 Level/Roster Status: Pre-Arbitration
If there’s one thing that convinces me that Ben Heller had a good year, it’s that he’s on the Yankees at all. To start the year he was a Cleveland Indian, and he was also a one-pitch pitcher. Relievers with just a fastball don’t get packaged in the Andrew Miller deal, especially given the fact Brian Cashman only wanted to ship Miller away under the perfect circumstances.
Heller finds himself under those perfect circumstances. In an interview with FanGraphs’ David Laurila, Heller describes why he ascended to the major leagues:
“My breaking ball is… I call it a slider, but it’s really more of a slurve. It’s usually 84-85 and it has some downward break as well as lateral break. Initially, I wanted a hard, tight slider — I tried for pretty much a full season to try to get it like that — but it didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t have the command. I started throwing it the way it felt comfortable, and got a lot of swings-and-misses and weak contact with it, so I kind of just took it and ran with it.”
Evolving from a one-note pitcher to someone who could throw two plus pitches for strikes, and one who could mix in a changeup for extra looks, is exactly what got him in the trade, and it’s exactly what made him a major leaguer.
Heller was completely lights-out between Double-A and Triple-A, to the tune of a 1.69 ERA and 3.93 K/BB ratio, and that forced the Yankees’ hand when they needed extra arms in August. He pitched in just ten games, and the last four were in low leverage situations. In total, he was worth -.86 WPA.
That’s the least of my worries. It was a small sample size, and this was his first cup of coffee. The point is: he was able to develop a second (and possibly third) pitch, and essentially wiggle his way into the trade and the 25-man roster based on his stuff and coachability. Clint Frazier is obviously the centerpiece of the Miller deal, but Heller is still an excellent throw-in.
There are still a lot of questions, though. Will he be able to get swings and misses at the big league level? Will command be an issue again? Can he effectively mix in his split-change? No matter what, though, he will get a shot in 2017.
Considering the stuff he has, especially with his explosive fastball, Heller should have a chance to take hold of a late-inning role with the Yankees. With the departure of both Miller and Aroldis Chapman, and with the uncertainty over who will swallow those innings next year, someone will need to take initiative. Considering the progress he has already made in a year, it’s not a stretch to say he might he heavily relied upon down the road.