Minutes before the the clock struck four to slam the door shut on the MLB Trade Deadline, the Yankees sealed their final deal of the window. They acquired left-handed pitcher Andrew Heaney from the Angels in exchange for Janson Junk, Elvis Peguero, and cash considerations. Or in other words:
#Yankees trading Junk for junk https://t.co/ZkTujakSxG— Peter Brody (@PBrods7) July 30, 2021
OK, perhaps I’m being unkind. Adding a MLB starting pitcher for two prospects nowhere close to the majors is a win. You’ll have to forgive me for feeling less-than-enamored with Heaney’s 5.27 ERA. But that’s why we have more advanced metrics than ERA to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness. With that in mind, let’s dive into Heaney’s pitching profile and what he offers the Yankees.
Starting with the basics, Heaney is a left-handed starter who features a three-pitch repertoire. His four-seamer sits at 92 mph, curveball at 79 mph, and changeup at 84 mph. He throws the fastball about 60 percent of the time, curveball 22 percent, and changeup 18 percent. In 18 starts, Heaney is 6-7 with a 5.27 ERA, 4.05 FIP, and 113 strikeouts in 94 innings.
Not the prettiest picture, however there are some reasons to be encouraged. The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed the wide disparity between his ERA and FIP — in fact the 1.21 delta between the two is the fifth-highest difference of any starter with at least 90 innings pitched — suggesting he has been the recipient of some bad luck/poor defense.
Leaving it at that is a bit deceiving, however. As Jake mentioned in his analysis yesterday, the problems arise when hitters make contact. His batted ball metrics all lie in the bottom-third of the league. He surrenders an expected wOBA on contact of .405, which is worse the the MLB-worst Diamondbacks’ team average! The key then is to avoid contact.
Heaney is off to a good start in this department — he owns a 33.3 percent chase rate and 29.7 percent whiff rate, good for the 91st and 73rd percentiles respectively — but there is room for improvement. His fastball and changeup possess elite horizontal movement, with the four-seamer exhibiting the sixth-most horizontal movement and the changeup 23rd-most in the league, yet each generates a whiff on less than 25 percent of swings. This leads me to believe that he is not leveraging his raw stuff in the most efficient manner, and this is where Matt Blake and the rest of the Yankees’ pitching coaches can step in.
One area that did stand out to me is the discrepancy in Heaney’s release points. He releases the curveball almost a half-foot closer to the rubber than the four-seamer and changeup. Additionally, Heaney’s release point for the four-seamer is noticeably lower than the curveball and changeup. Taken together, this could indicate that hitters are able to identify the pitch out of his hand. If Blake can help him sync up his release points, it could increase the deceptiveness of his delivery, resulting in a more effective pitch.
The other tweak I could see him making is with pitch selection. Heaney throws the changeup almost exclusively to righties — he has thrown eight changeups all season to lefty batters — turning him into a two-pitch pitcher when facing southpaws. The Yankees have made a concerted effort to refine the changeup across most of their staff, and that includes encouraging pitchers to throw it against both same-handed and opposite-handed batters. If they can convince Heaney to feature it more against lefties, I think it could pay dividends.
With all this being said, I still struggle to see how he fits into the starting staff. It’s hard to see him displacing any of the five starters, despite Aaron Boone’s assertion that he will join the rotation. Instead, the Yankees might be best served utilizing him as a multi-inning, high leverage reliever, much how the Dodgers used their back-end starters in the 2020 postseason. His first time facing the order, Heaney pitches to a stellar 25.9 percent K-BB rate and 3.28 xFIP. His second time through, those worsen to 13.8 percent and 4.59 respectively. His limited arsenal is likely the main culprit, so barring the addition of another pitch, it is doubtful he sees a drastic improvement.
When the news broke in the PSA slack that the Yankees had acquired Heaney, the move was met with a fair bit of skepticism. The knee-jerk reaction was to question if he at all represented an upgrade to their current situation. The general consensus was that he was picked up to keep the seat warm while the Yankees awaited the “real deadline additions” of Luis Severino and Corey Kluber returning from injury. There is always a need for innings eaters down the stretch, and who knows, he could even see the results tick up in the Bronx. Just don’t expect him to transform into the next ace.