Apart from his apparent prowess playing Madden, Ben Heller has gone virtually unnoticed in the last few month. There are very few reports about how he looked in the abbreviated spring training, and not many people are talking about his potential contributions to the 2020 New York Yankees. However, they may be forgetting the potential the 28-year-old right-hander has to be a viable MLB bullpen arm.
Teams will need healthy, effective relievers more than ever before in 2020, if there is a season to play. If the season can get off the ground, it will likely be with a tight, compressed schedule, with lots of innings to cover in a relatively short period of time. Rest days will be scarce, and clubs’ depth will be tested.
That’s where arms like Heller come into play. Heller is a wild card, a limited track record and with most not expecting much from him. After all, he missed big portions of the last two seasons with Tommy John surgery.
But he claims he is fully healthy now, ready to pitch a whole season. In many senses, 2020 may be Ben Heller’s make or break season with the Yankees, as he needs to perform to maintain his spot in the team’s future plans. Provided he fully regains his stuff and command, he has the talent to be more than a “Scranton Shuttle” guy, which is what he was for a couple of years after making his MLB debut in 2016.
Of course, that is a big “if” when you consider the fact that he averaged, per FanGraphs, 93.2 mph on his fastball (which Baseball Savant qualifies as a sinker, by the way.) Those 93+ heaters mph are a far cry of the high 90s he showed back when he was a star Triple-A closer in 2017. He touched 100 mph with some frequency back then.
During those days, he struck out an amazing 13.1 batters per nine innings in 56.1 frames, with a 2.88 ERA. The he blew out his elbow in 2018, and the long rehab process took essentially two seasons.
When he returned last year to the majors, he had a 1.23 ERA in 7.1 innings, with a healthy dose of strikeouts (11.05 K/9) and swings and misses (12.3%.) However, that sample size is far too small to put much stock in.
One thing to note: his pitch mix changed a lot in those 7.1 frames in contrast to what he showed in previous seasons:
Last season, he threw almost as many breaking balls (42.2 percent) as sinkers (49.0 percent) whereas in the past, the split was more like 51-33 in favor of fastballs. Instead of sliders, he used mostly curves. We will see if these become trends going forward: only sufficient sample size will provide the answer.
Heller represents quite the project for new pitching coach Matt Blake, who will be tasked with giving him the tools to succeed. Heller will be on his own when he walks on the mound, and it will be the quality of his stuff and control that will dictate his ability to remain with the Yankees in the long term.