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Andrew Heaney might have a second career as a reliever

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Andrew Heaney has had a serviceable career as a back-of-the-rotation guy, but he might be better used as a reliever. And it all has to do with his fastball.

MLB: New York Yankees at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get into this analysis, I want to acknowledge two things: (1) Yes, I recognize that Andrew Heaney’s last two starts were solid-to-strong outings against formidable lineups; and (2) Yes, I recognize that Heaney’s career numbers are not the nicest to behold. Okay, on with the show.

Throughout his career, Heaney has been a bit of a frustrating pitcher to watch. Armed with decent stuff and the moxie to be a starter, Heaney battled serious arm problems at the start of his career that culminated in Tommy John surgery in 2016. When he has stayed on the field — he hit 180 innings pitching in 2018, but his 120 innings pitched this year are the second-most of his career — the results haven’t exactly been the greatest. In 620.2 innings pitched across eight years entering play on Tuesday, Heaney has a career 4.64 ERA, 4.43 FIP. 1.6 HR/9, and 7.2 fWAR.

But it’s not all bad, though. Heaney has posted a solid 9.2 K/9 throughout his career, and, most important to my argument in this piece, has some very interesting peripheral stats in the Statcast database. Currently, Heaney is in the 88th percentile for Fastball Spin rate - the only Yankees pitchers with a higher spin rate are Gerrit Cole (91st) and Chad Green (94th) - and he’s in the 90th percentile for chase rate.

Despite these indicators, however, Heaney’s fastball usage is a little bizarre. As a three-pitch pitcher, Statcast says Heaney’s fastball usage is currently sitting at 58.7 percent, which is right in line with his career average, even though his Whiff percentage on fastballs is the highest it’s been since 2017 and his xwOBA on fastballs is the lowest its ever been.

For the sake of comparison, here are the Fastball Usage rates for the rest of the Yankees’ starters:

Baseball Savant

Heaney’s fastball usage is quite evidently leaps and bounds higher than the next-closest starter in Jameson Taillon. Because of the need for starters to go at least four or five innings, starting pitchers simply can’t use their fastball that much or they’ll wear their arms down too quickly. So, while Heaney’s fastball usage is much higher than any other starter on the team, he still might not be throwing it enough.

Enter my argument: The Yankees (if they ever get healthy) would get better results from Heaney by moving him to the bullpen and letting him air out his fastball a bit more. Don’t buy it? Check out the graph below:

Baseball Savant

That is Chad Green’s pitch usage by season. As a starter, he was throwing his fastball a meager 36.1 percent of the time. As a reliever in 2017, that number jumped to 68.1 percent and even reached 86.5 percent in 2018. Another interesting stat: his spin rates are basically right in line with Heaney’s career averages, too. If Heaney transitioned to the bullpen, he could very well bump those numbers up to Green-level usage rates and truly leverage his elite spin rate.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m not trying to make a direct comparison between Green’s career and my idea of what the rest of Heaney’s should look like. Green was a 26-year-old with only eight starts under his belt before the team moved him to the bullpen, and Heaney’s been a starter for parts of eight seasons now. There’s some respect that goes along with that service time, so there’s really no comparison there. However, I’m bringing Green into this because his usage percentages are what I think Heaney’s should look like, and the only way for him to do that is for him to make the transition to the bullpen.

Heaney’s success rate as he gets deeper into the game is another indicator that he might be better off in relief work. These are his splits based on time through the order throughout his career:

FanGraphs

Unsurprisingly, Heaney’s numbers get much worse the further into a game he gets. In fact, by the time he gets to his third trip through the lineup, he becomes virtually unplayable. His first time through the order, however, looks very solid. So why not leverage that success a little more by limiting the amount of batters he has to face?

By moving Heaney to the bullpen and using him as an inning-or-two reliever in the middle of the game, the Yankees would allow him to truly leverage his standout fastball while also limiting potential trouble from the times-through-the-order penalty that plagues him. Oh, and the fact that he’s a lefty capable of throwing decently hard certainly helps his case, too.

Right now, there is a lot of discussion about the pitching rotation and a lot of fans are clamoring for Luis Gil to start over Heaney. I get it. I really do. But, for the purpose of this article, I’m not focused on that discussion because this isn’t a Gil versus Heaney debate. Instead, it’s the simple fact that I genuinely believe that Heaney would be better suited to a bullpen role. His splits, along with his Statcast data, suggest that the 30-year-old would project to be an especially versatile reliever at this stage in his career.