If you corner every New York Yankees fan who followed the 2021 season and asked how much they would pay left-handed pitcher Andrew Heaney in free agency to pitch in 2022, I don’t know that very many would say $8 million. One could make the case that the summary of all fan estimations might go lower than that figure. And yet that’s how much the Los Angeles Dodgers guaranteed Heaney on November 8th, according to Ken Rosenthal.
The New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported that Heaney was getting a lot of interest around MLB for his 2022 services. Notably, some teams see him as the next Robbie Ray, the Toronto Blue Jays lefty who bounced back from poor performances to become a finalist for the American League Cy Young Award in 2021 (which he will probably win).
The quiet period ends at 5pm today and if you are looking for a quick sign in this market keep an eye on Andrew Heaney. Lots of teams looking for the next Robbie Ray and Heaney struck out 27 pct of batters. Hear #Dodgers #Bluejays #Nationals #StLCards among the interested— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) November 7, 2021
Those of us who watched Heaney in New York in 2021 are probably lower on him than anyone else, but even looking strictly at his underlying numbers, I have a hard time envisioning such a major turnaround in Heaney’s future.
Ray was absolutely a poor pitcher in the shortened 2020 season, which he began with the Arizona Diamondbacks before being traded to Toronto. His FIP was 6.50 — just a bit better than the 6.93 figure Heaney posted after being traded to the Yankees this year. Ray’s BB/9 in 2020 was an incredibly high 7.8, and his HR/9 was 2.3. Heaney’s BB/9 with the Yankees was 2.5 and his HR/9 was 3.3.
So Heaney did not struggle with his control nearly as badly as Ray did, but he did have more issues with giving up home runs. And as Sherman noted, Heaney’s strikeout stuff has always been tantalizing and what led to suggestions that pitching coach Matt Blake could “fix” Heaney and make him an above average starter upon being traded. Baseball Savant has his fastball spin and chase rate among the best in MLB in 2021.
However, Heaney still gave up 17 home runs on the fastball, his best pitch. While his curveball was also effective, with only a .196 batting average against it, his changeup was less so, and he clearly did not feel comfortable throwing it to left-handed batters—he only did so 15 times total. That made him essentially a two-pitch pitcher, which a starter cannot be. Sherman also noted that Heaney was working on a slider during September, but there’s no way of knowing yet how effective that pitch will be in real games, if it even is at all.
Though he had a disastrous 2020 season, Ray experienced recent success before that. He had a 2.89 ERA for Arizona in 2017, and his strikeout rate in 2021 was actually his lowest since 2016. There was at least a history of big league success there; meanwhile, Heaney has never had a season like Ray’s 2017.
Additionally, in an article by The Athletic, Ray attributed his newfound success to a new exercise regime that increased his velocity and new pitching mechanics. A mechanical issue would easily explain his suddenly high walk rate in 2020, and the shortened season would mean there wasn’t a whole lot of time to adjust midseason. Meanwhile, Ray’s fastball velocity of 94.8 is faster than Heaney’s 92.
So, sure, Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior could work all offseason on a third pitch for Heaney, a new workout routine, and help him rework his mechanics. Maybe that would improve Heaney’s results. But if it were that simple, every starter would be a star. Heaney’s 2021 season was simply who he’s been — his home run rate was only the third-worst it’s been in his career. He was not more effective after moving to the bullpen. Heaney may be an OK fourth or fifth starter for the Dodgers, like he’s been in the past, but a rise to Cy Young-level prominence does not seem likely at all.