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The Final Deadline Acquisition: Why Andrew Heaney?

By Andy Singer


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Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Getty Images
Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Getty Images


Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Getty Images


The week leading up to the MLB Trade Deadline was dizzying for many fans to follow with an abundance of trades and associated roster moves. For Yankee fans, that was particularly the case as Brian Cashman wheeled and dealt his way through the week in an attempt to bolster an underachieving roster. Among the big trades for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo were a proliferation of smaller deals, so you can be forgiven if you haven’t spent much time thinking about the last of those trades, in which the Yankees acquired Andrew Heaney from the Angels for a couple of prospects who could more aptly be described as organizational filler.

Andrew Heaney is a name with which diehard baseball fans should be familiar. Prior to his MLB stint with the Angels, Heaney was a consensus Top-100 prospect in the Marlins farm system. Heaney has not exactly lived up to that status in his MLB career to this point, though that is not necessarily through fault of his own. Heaney has struggled with elbow troubles for much of his career, finally going under the knife for Tommy John in 2016, though he has struggled with occasional bouts of elbow pain and inflammation even since the ligament replacement procedure (lest we forget that recovery from such significant surgery is not automatic or simple). Heaney put together 180 innings of good pitching in 2018 following his true return from Tommy John, but he has ridden the roller coaster of some good performances, mixed in with elbow issues, and plenty of poor performances ever since despite good stuff. This year, Heaney sports a 5.27 ERA. So…why was this the move that Brian Cashman made on the starting pitching front? Plenty of Yankee observers, including some of the writers here at SSTN, have asked that exact question. Luckily, there is more than meets the eye with Heaney.

Just Under the Surface

A cursory look under the hood gives me some hope for Heaney’s rest-of-season performance. Heaney’s stuff has always been good, and he remains plenty capable of striking out opposing batters with that stuff, posting a 28.2% strikeout rate (10.8 K/9) which is well above the league average even in an era when 3-true outcomes rules the day. Heaney has also managed to limit walks relative to his nearly elite strikeout rate, walking 7.7% (3.0 BB/9) of batters, a hair below the league average rate. Heaney also allows less than one base hit per inning. Given his ability to strike opposing batters out while limiting base hits and walks, it shouldn’t be surprising that Heaney’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 4.05, much cleaner than his 5.27 ERA.

Traditionally, Heaney has under-performed his FIP, but before that solid number is dismissed out of hand based on previous experience, Heaney’s BABIP is high at .319, well above the league average .298 BABIP. Even in the era of “The Shift,” fly balls still produce the lowest batting average on balls in play by a fairly wide margin. Heaney is an extreme fly ball pitcher, allowing fly balls on 31.1% of batted ball events in 2021, well above the 22.2% league average. Based on this alone, we should expect Heaney’s BABIP to be artificially low as opposed to high. Heaney’s line drive rate is slightly elevated, but not enough so to combat the high rate of fly balls he allows. In short, I would expect Heaney’s BABIP to regress as the season progresses in such a way that his hits allowed and ERA should drop accordingly.

A quick look at the high-level Statcast numbers for Andrew Heaney’s 2021 performance gives me some hope as well:


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Andrew Heaney 2021 Statcast Rankings, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Andrew Heaney 2021 Statcast Rankings, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Andrew Heaney 2021 Statcast Rankings, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Heaney gives up a fair amount of hard contact, but his stuff is clearly above-average or nearly elite. His Chase Rate and Whiff Rate are excellent, and he spins both his fastball and curveball better than most. All of this stuff is intact despite Heaney’s high profile struggles with his pitching elbow. This all bodes well for future performance.

Foreign Substance Crackdown Impact?

You are forgiven if your thought when looking at Heaney’s spin rates, whiff rates, and chase rates is to wonder if those stats were built prior to MLB’s crackdown on the application of foreign substances to the baseball. I will freely admit that the thought crossed my mind, and here is what I found:


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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Despite an interestingly timed spike for 2 starts prior to the foreign substances crackdown, Heaney’s spin rate on his fastball and change-up have remained remarkably stable throughout the year. The spin on Heaney’s curveball has dipped from May through early July, though the spin rate has ticked up within range of his early season performances in his most recent starts, so it’s possible that some of the drop in spin rate was mechanical as opposed to being related to foreign substances.

More to the point, Heaney has shown consistently better performances since May in terms of strikeout rate and how hard hitters are hitting balls off of him:


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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)



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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)



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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said that the surface level number alone indicate that Andrew Heaney has experienced bad batted ball luck and that his BABIP is due for regression? These graphs fairly definitively indicate that Heaney has indeed been more unlucky recently and is due for positive regression on the mound. Even if nothing changed from here on out, we can expect Andrew Heaney to be better than his bottom-line ERA indicates through the end of the season. Heaney continues to strikeout hitters at a well above average rate while consistently allowing softer contact as the season progresses. Even with a 5+ ERA, Heaney has been worth 1 bWAR to-date, so better performance should net the Yankees a roughly average starter through the end of the year.

Digging Deeper into Heaney’s Pitch Mix and Locations

So, we’ve established that all of the indicators under the hood of Heaney’s season are more positive than one would assume by just looking at his ERA. Now, it makes sense to look at how Heaney actually pitches.

Below, you’ll see heatmaps with locations for each of Heaney’s three pitches (four-seam fastball, curveball, and change-up) with the percentages he throws each pitch:


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Andrew Heaney 2021 Pitch Location Heatmap, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Andrew Heaney 2021 Pitch Location Heatmap, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Andrew Heaney 2021 Pitch Location Heatmap, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Heaney does an excellent job of spotting his change-up and his curveball low and at the corners, and he tries to spot his high-spin fastball up in the zone, though it leaks towards the heart of the plate a bit too often. This tracks with how hitters have performed against the pitch: it gets hit harder than either Heaney’s curveball or change-up, and hitters have a whopping .370 wOBA against the fastball. Despite that fact, Heaney throws the pitch 59.6% of the time. This seems strange on the surface, and even odder when you understand how effective his curveball has been against hitters in 2021, as hitters produce just a .212 wOBA against that offering.

I took that data a step further. I wanted to isolate examples of good fastballs and curves, and compare the results. Statcast is such a powerful tool that I was able to do just that. Let’s throw out all of the fastballs that leaked out over the plate and just look at the ones Heaney has planted at the tippy top of the zone in 2021:


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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)



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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Quite frankly, Heaney is playing with fire even with his best fastballs up in the zone. Sure, the whiff rate and strikeout rate are both excellent, but when hitters make contact (and they do with great frequency), they are tattooing the ball, producing a .491 wOBA. It’s production so stunning that I even double-checked the stats. Even Heaney’s best fastballs are hittable.

That’s a fascinating contrast with Heaney’s best located curveballs in 2021:


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Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)



View fullsize


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)


Despite throwing far fewer curveballs, Heaney is able to get the pitch into the best possible position to succeed with much greater frequency as compared to the fastball, and the results speak for themselves. The whiff rate for the curveball is similarly excellent when compared to Heaney’s fastball, but the strikeout rate is far higher, and the wOBA is elite, in stark contrast to the horrendous wOBA against Heaney has experienced against even his best located fastballs in 2021.

When Brian Cashman acquired Andrew Heaney, many people assumed that the Yankees must have some quick fix that they would try to implement with Heaney. The answer is right in front of us: Heaney is a prime candidate to go the anti-fastball route that many Yankee pitchers have taken in recent years. It would not shock me in the slightest to see Heaney’s fastball usage drop significantly with the Yankees, and more to the point, the Yankees would be smart to get Heaney to make the change.

Conclusion

Andrew Heaney is a talented, but flawed pitcher. While he may not be the splash many fans hoped for in the rotation, there is reason to believe that better days are ahead for Andrew Heaney, both due to basic positive regression and some timely tweaks to his pitch mix and locations.

Most importantly, if there is one thing the Yankees needed in the rotation, it’s depth. The Yankees are anxiously awaiting the day that they can pencil both Luis Severino and Corey Kluber into the rotation, but they were well past the point of having the luxury of time. That fact was further hammered home with Domingo German’s recent bout of shoulder inflammation that will send him to the IL. While the Yankees came into this season with young, exciting depth, that depth has evaporated due to injury (Sevy, Kluber, and Clarke Schmidt) and underperformance (Deivi Garcia). The Yankees needed depth however they could get it, and Heaney was the only option the Yankees were able to realistically acquire.

And if Sevy and Kluber return, pitch well, and the Yankees find themselves in the playoffs? Heaney could carve out a meaningful role in the bullpen. As we’ve seen, you can never have too much pitching.

Despite the fact that Heaney’s bottom-line stats underwhelm, I see cause for cautious optimism prior to his Yankee debut. Time will tell if Cashman’s acquisition of Andrew Heaney helps the Yankees’ cause in 2021, but I can’t help but be reminded of a similar pitcher from season’s past who helped the Yankees down the stretch following a trade deadline move: Brandon McCarthy. For those too young to remember, McCarthy boosted a struggling Yankee rotation in 2014, and performed well above anyone’s expectations through the end of the year. We can only hope that Heaney can do the same, but at least the underlying data suggests reason to hope.

#AndrewHeaney

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