A Victim of Circumstance

NLDS - Los Angeles Dodgers v New York Mets - Game 1

When I first heard rumbling during Spring Training that pitching phenom prospect Jenrry Mejia may be brought up with the big club to make Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya look good…erm, uh…I mean of course to get Mejia adjusted to major league hitting, well, I was dead set against the idea.  See, while the Mets have traditionally played in a pitcher-friendly dimensional park and have had a rich pitching history, their history of handling prospects is not so great.  I won’t insult your intelligence by bringing up the likes of Tim Leary or Generation K.

When it was obvious that Mejia wasn’t quite working out well and his talents weren’t being fully utilized in the majors, thank goodness Mets management saw the error in their ways and sent him back down to work on his endurance in the minors.  Most recently, he was sent to the minors, had “shoulder soreness,” now scratched with “rotator cuff strain,” but should be back and working on his stamina in no time.

However, it did make me think of a former Mets pitching prospect whom the Mets mistreated, misjudged then quickly cast aside when it no longer suited them.  I hoped that Mejia would not go that route and it looks like he won’t, thank goodness.

That pitcher I speak of, though, is Aaron Heilman.  Aaron “F” Heilman, as some have taken to calling him in the Mets lexicon.

By now, most of you are aware that Heilman, a former University of Notre Dame pitcher, has been recently tapped to be the closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  In typical Coop fashion, I joked that it might be better for the D-Backs to “just forfeit.”

My joking wasn’t so much a reflection on Heilman’s abilities.  To this day, I truly believe that the Mets destroyed his chances of being taken seriously as a starter, which he had shown many times he had the goods to be, and is being groomed to be in a position that his psyche will not be able to handle.

My philosophy with Heilman is this: his psyche was more tailored to be a starter.  When he comes into a game in the first inning, there are zeroes across the board.  If he gives up a three-run home run, say, in the second inning, guess what?  There are probably at least four more innings the team can make that up to him.  If he’s coming into a game with two out, two on and the tying run at the plate, well…we all know too well what would happen in those instances with Heilman.  There’s less of a margin of error, therefore causing a more pressure-filled situation.

My point is, as a starter, which the Mets were convinced he would not serve in, he was not as bad as some people would think.

Friend-of-Coop and Mets blogger Joe Janish from Mets Today has been an unabashed supporter of Heilman.  I remember quite distinctly when he and I were having an off-the-cuff conversation where he said he believed Heilman was one of the best pitchers in the National League.  When I scoffed at the notion, I was pretty much brainwashed the way most of us Mets fans were, regarding Heilman’s development.  HE ONLY HAS TWO PITCHES!!! HE IS MORE VALUABLE AS A RELIEVER!  HE DOES NOT HAVE ENOUGH PITCHES TO GO A FULL GAME.  Etc, etc.

Not so.  Janish, in my estimation, is not just a Heilman proponent but has done extensive research on the pitches he did have (Janish is also a player/coach, so I do tend to take his baseball critiques seriously).  In an email exchange we had where I asked him to summarize Heilman’s pitches, Janish writes:

“He always threw a hard sinking, good moving fastball, an outstanding changeup, and an above-average slider.  His ‘changeup’ was actually two pitches — an ‘OK’ change that moved away from LH hitters and a forkball that sunk straight down that he used mostly vs. RH hitters.  And his ‘fastball’ includes a straight four-seamer, a sinker that goes in on RH hitters’ hands, and a tailing two-seamer that runs away from RHs/into LHs.  But as a reliever he pretty much focused on three of those pitches.”

In one of my favorite blog posts on Heilman written ever, Janish disputes some of the Heilman myths, circa 2007.  The big four included: Heilman is more valuable to the team as a reliever than a starter; Heilman does not have good numbers as a starter; Heilman doesn’t throw enough pitches to be a starter (see above where he explained that myth away); and Heilman is a selfish whiner with a bad attitude.  Now for the arguments set above, we see that as a reliever, he wasn’t able to use most of his pitches or get into a groove using them, so that ties into him not being able to throw enough pitches to be a starter.

What was also interesting is that up to 2007, his numbers as a starter were pretty solid, at least in the small sample set enough to give him a whirl or more of a chance than the Mets actually did:

7 GS/ 42 IP / 34 K / 12BB / 4.37 ERA / 1.19 WHIP / 2-3 record / 1 CG (SH)

Not atrocious as the media or the Mets brass would have you think.  Not phenomenal either…but decent enough to be a strong back of the rotation starter (which I’d like to point out is what the Mets were missing in the last few weeks of 2007 and 2008 while Heilman was languishing in the bullpen).

Also, I never bought into the whole selfish whiner myth either.  This is why I call Heilman a “victim of circumstance.”  Think about us at our day jobs.  Let’s say you are looking for more responsibility, and your boss tells you if you continue to excel at your current role, you’ll get a promotion or a different role.

Then as time goes on, you become a little too good at your role and you are told that you are now too valuable to vacate the role.  However, when the role you feel you are better suited for opens up, management puts someone else in who is less-than-qualified, only because they feel your contributions are better suited in the role you are already in.

Pretty frustrating, right?  Well, my theory on Aaron Heilman is he WAS that guy who was “pigeonholed,” and jerked around.  Think about how many times the Mets put someone in the starting rotation (Jose Lima ring a bell in 2006?) when Heilman could have and should have been starting.  By that time, the damage had been done.

No, he doesn’t see himself as a starter, and neither do the teams he plays on.  Quite frankly, he might be in need of a shrink more so than Oliver Perez.  And it’s sad, since as you can see by Janish’s research, Heilman had a lot of promise as a starting pitcher.  His numbers were nothing short of outstanding at the University of Notre Dame.  For brevity sake, I will use his last year at UND which was 2001, prior to being drafted by the Mets.  In 15 games started, he boasted a 15-0 record, 1.74 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 111 Ks in 114 IP.

Prior to that, he had a low-3ish ERA and over-.500 W/L record.  He was an innings eater too!  (Go figure)

Far be it for me to rehash the past or wonder “what could have been.”  However, I know I had to laugh when I heard that Aaron Heilman is now the Diamondbacks closer.  Not because I thought that the D-Backs must be so bad that Heilman is their best option as closer (well, maybe I did think that). Currently, he has three saves with a 2-3 record for the D-Backs.

What I really thought was, in a roundabout fashion, that the Mets got it right with a prospect this time.  Aaron Heilman has become a cautionary tale for messing with pitcher’s mechanics when they could have excelled in other roles and been more valuable to the team in the long term.

**Many thanks to Joe Janish for his excellent research, spot-on commentary and fighting the good fight in defense of Aaron Heilman.**

Written by Taryn Cooper