The New York Yankees were universally acclaimed as winners of the trade deadline for their acquisitions of Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo, but those players aren’t the only lefties they added. They sent two Double-A pitchers to the Los Angeles Angels for veteran starter Andrew Heaney to bolster their rotation.
The 30-year-old southpaw was a consensus top-50 prospect in MLB coming up through the Miami Marlins organization. On Dec. 11, 2014, he was traded twice— first to the Los Angeles Dodgers and then to the Angels a few hours later. After a strong 2015 season in which he started 18 games with a 3.49 ERA at the major league level, Tommy John surgery wiped out most of the next two years. He’s been mostly healthy since then, if not quite as dominant as once hoped, starting 78 games and throwing 436 innings since 2018 with a 4.60 ERA.
In 2021, he has started 18 games, but his ERA has ballooned to 5.27. On the surface, he appears to be an innings eater who won’t inspire a ton of confidence. Let’s look under the hood to see if there’s more to his story.
Heaney has always featured a three-pitch mix, but those pitches have evolved over the course of his career. When he came up to the majors, he was a sinker/slider guy with an obligatory changeup (nearly all lefty starters have one, especially those drafted out of college). Upon recovering from his injuries, he reshaped his slider into a curveball. In 2020, he altered his sinker grip into a more traditional four-seam fastball.
Regardless of the shape of his pitches, his usage hasn’t varied much. For his entire career, he’s thrown his fastball roughly 60 percent of the time, and his breaking ball and changeup 20 percent each. He reserves the change almost exclusively for right-handed hitters.
His fastball velocity averages 92 mph, which is middle-of-the-road for a starting pitcher, but his 2,453 rpm spin rate is fantastic. In fact, it somehow spins almost as much as his curveball. The 6.7 inches of horizontal movement on his heater is the most in MLB by a starting pitcher.
There’s plenty to like and dislike about Heaney’s results this year. Let’s start with the good. His 28.2 percent strikeout rate is well above the MLB average of 22 percent. He is able to finish off batters with any of his three pitches, accumulating 57 strikeouts with the fastball, 32 with the curve, and 24 with the changeup. His chase rate is 91st percentile in MLB. He’s also stingy with walks. His career 6.7 percent walk rate is better than the MLB average of 8.4 percent. This year, only 31 of his 401 batters faced drew a free pass.
The trouble starts when opponents connect with his pitches. XwOBAcon is a statistic that sounds like a tech startup, but it actually measures the quality of contact. MLB league average xwOBAcon is .363, but Heaney has yielded an xwOBAcon north of .400 for three consecutive seasons.
Heaney’s hard-hit rate of 41.7 percent is much higher than the league average of 35.5 percent. He’s also a flyball pitcher, and hard hits + fly balls = home runs. He has given up 16 homers through 94 innings this year, or 1.5 per nine. Now he departs Angel Stadium’s larger-than-average outfield for Yankee Stadium’s close quarters (though obviously being left-handed helps).
Here is his fastball heat map:
There are a lot of middle-middle fastballs in that picture. Like most pitchers, he throws it most often when he’s behind in the count and needs a strike. After all, he doesn’t walk many batters. The problem is that a 92 mph fastball down the pipe is just about the most hittable pitch in baseball, especially from a lefty pitcher to a righty batter. When opposing right-handed hitters are ahead in the count, they hit .448 on his fastball with a .828 slugging percentage.
The coaching staff may want to encourage him to mix up his pitches more. His curveball and changeup get better results, so maybe decreasing his overall fastball usage in favor of his secondaries will improve his numbers. They can also ask him to “pitch backward” more often— throwing curves and changeups in fastball counts. This may lead to more walks, but if the tradeoff is fewer loud hits, it will be worthwhile.
Finding a Role for Heaney
We’ve seen the Andrew Heaney movie before. The Yankees have a habit of trading for middling lefty starting pitchers at the deadline, such as J.A. Happ and Jaime García. The problem this time is that it’s not clear Heaney is a rotation upgrade over their current starters. Before the trade, their rotation was Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, and Nestor Cortes. The first three have guaranteed starting spots. Germán has been up and down this season, including a stint in the bullpen, with overall numbers similar to those of Heaney. Cortes has been a revelation, pitching inexplicably well in a variety of roles.
If not for the fact that they just traded for him as a starter, Heaney would probably be the best choice to take a lesser role. That’s not an option right now, so Germán would seem like the obvious choice to move to the bullpen to make way for Heaney, but it appears Cortes gets the boot. That deepens their relief corps but weakens their rotation. Hopefully, Corey Kluber and Luis Severino will be back soon and make it all a moot point.
The Yankees made it a priority to add depth to their starting rotation. Injuries to their major league and triple-A rosters diminished what was thought to be a strength in Spring Training. Heaney certainly gives them more options should another pitcher land on the IL. He’s probably better than his ERA indicates, but not by much, and it’s not clear he’s among their five best starting pitchers right now. He’ll reach free agency following the season, so the club has two months to get the best out of him and justify handing him the ball every fifth day.