In the 2016 trade that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland, Ben Heller was arguably the third best piece that the Yankees received in return at the time. You wouldn’t find him on any top 100 lists or anything, but he was a reliever close to the majors, putting up some impressive numbers in Triple-A. He then went on to make his debut that August.
In the years since, Heller’s major league career as a Yankee so far has been stop-start. In the first two seasons, that was due in part to him being on the “Scranton Shuttle,” and having at least one stint in the majors where he never got into a game. However in more recent years, he’s been away due to injury. Heller underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2018, and only just returned towards the end of 2019.
However with 2020 spring training games underway and the season inching closer, can Heller become a regular part of the bullpen going forward?
2019 Season Statistics:
Majors: 7.1 IP, 1.23 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 1.227 WHIP, 11.9 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 7.4 H/9, 1.2 HR/9
Minors (triple-A/advanced-A): 13.3 IP, 0.66 ERA, 2.35/2.93 FIP (AAA/A+), 0.878 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 5.3 H/9, 0.9 HR/9
2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 28.0 IP, 4.32 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 1.35 WHIP, 10.03 K/9, 4.04 BB/9, 8.04 H/9 1.45 HR/9
Beyond him just being healthy, there are a couple reasons to think that Heller’s role could be expanded in 2020. One is that when CC Sabathia went down during the ALCS, he was the one added to the roster. Even if he didn’t end up pitching in the series, the team clearly has some amount of faith in him to put him on a playoff roster.
There was also the departure of Dellin Betances. Now that he’s a Met, that’s one less arm that the Yankees have in the bullpen in front of Heller. The bullpen is still plenty deep, but with Betances gone, everyone behind him will theoretically move up a spot, including Heller. Between his contract that’s still under team control and the potential he’s shown at points, it’s entirely plausible that Heller will spent a lot of time in the majors this season.
Another is the new three-batter minimum rule. The Yankees haven’t really had an outright LOOGY in a couple years, and now there’s even less of a reason for them to have one. Throughout his minor league career, Heller’s shown himself to be perfectly capable of getting hitters of either handedness out.
As for what to expect from him in 2020, there’s still much to be seen. He may have debuted nearly four years ago at this point, but he still has just 25.1 major league innings under his belt. That’s not to mention that his pitch usage was fairly different upon his major league return in 2019 from what it had previously been:
He relied on his breaking stuff a lot more than his pre-Tommy John years, while his changeup usage dropped nearly in half. Of course last year’s numbers are working off just a seven inning sample, which could have more to do with that than any sort of genuine change. Add in new Yankees’ pitching coach Matt Blake, and it’s tough to know exactly what to expect from Heller in 2020.
The aforementioned FanGraphs projections have him putting up a relatively mediocre year. That wouldn’t exactly be surprising for, even with the injuries, a 28-year old who has thrown less than 30 major league innings. On the other hand, it also wouldn’t be shocking for him to spend the who season in the majors putting up decent numbers. He has the stuff, and if he can break through, this seems like a good year to.