Andrew Heaney Is Effectively Unusual

The Angels rotation is interesting for a number of reasons.

For starters, it houses Shohei Ohtani, who is living up to and even exceeding the unprecedented hype that surrounded his arrival to the major leagues. Then there is the six-man nature of the rotation, an experiment that is working to date — a point explored in some depth by Craig Edwards earlier this week. Angels starting pitchers rank fourth in the American League in WAR (3.5), fourth in ERA (3.77), fourth in FIP (3.90), fourth in xFIP (3.84), third in strikeout percentage (24.6%), and fifth in ERA- (90).

Along with Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons, that rotation is a big reason why the Angels are just two games behind the Astros in the West and appear to be a Wild Card favorite at the moment, with roughly a 50% chance of reaching the postseason, a mark which trails only the three division leaders and Boston.

Ohtani has been pitching like an ace. Tyler Skaggs is giving us reasons to remember why he was a top prospect. Jaime Barria has a 51 ERA-. Garrett Richards is healthy and averaging 96 mph with his fastball. Nick Tropeano has managed to be effective with a low-strikeout, low-fly-ball approach.

And then there is the curious case of Andrew Heaney.

The former Marlins prospect and ninth overall pick of the 2012 draft was traded to the Angels as part of a three-team deal involving the Dodgers on Dec. 11, 2014. He struggled in his first exposure to major-league competition in 2014. He rebounded with a 1.7 WAR and 3.43/3.71 ERA/FIP in 2015 before needing Tommy John surgery in July of 2016, wiping out the better part of two seasons.

Now he’s back and he’s fascinating. No one is quite like Heaney, who has already been worth a win above replacement while recording a 3.93 ERA and 2.88 FIP early this season, and striking out 27.9% of batters, up from his career average of 20.6%. He struck out 10 Astros over eight innings in his last start on Monday.

The lefty throws a curveball that doesn’t curve. He throws a pitch labeled as a sinker that does’t sink. It has above-average spin (2,400 rpms) and the rise of a four-seamer. And his changeup is similar in moment profile to that of Stephen Strasburg and Alex Wood, with a significant amount of fading action coupled with positive vertical movement.

Let’s begin with the breaking ball that Heaney knows is unusual.

“It’s a curve, I hold it on the horseshoe,” Heaney told Eno Sarris for The Athletic near the end of spring training. “I know it doesn’t drop all that much, though.”

Last year, in a limited sample of 21.1 innings, his curveball ranked first in whiffs per swing (59.1%) despite ranking 180th out of 187 in vertical break among curves thrown by starters who threw the pitch at least 50 times (-0.60 inches) and 182nd in horizontal movement (0.44 inches).

This season Heaney’s do-nothing curveball, which he is throwing more often, ranks sixth in whiffs per swing (45.3%), one spot ahead of Gerrit Cole. Out of 96 pitchers to have thrown at least 50 breaking balls, Heaney’s curve ranks 88th in horizontal movement (1.91 inches) and 92nd in vertical break (-1.41 inches).

The pitch doesn’t move much at all apart from the force of gravity working upon it, yet it generates rare swing and miss. For his career, opponents are batting .162 and slugging .222 against the pitch. And Heaney is relying upon it more, throwing it at a career high rate of 23%. He’s thrown it 637 times in his career and opponents have never homered on it.

Then there is his sinker that doesn’t sink, but rather plays as a fly-ball pitch.

More spin equals more lift. The pitch is averaging 2,464 rpms this season. (The MLB average average for a two-seamer is 2,150.) His fastball averaged 2,459 rpms last season, 2,407 in a injury-shortened 2016, and 2,366 in 2015 in 2015. The pitch has elite spin despite below-average velocity (91.7 mph).

The pitch is classified by Savant and Pitch Info as a sinker, yet it ranks fourth in rise or vertical lift (8.69 inches) among 107 pitchers to have thrown at least 50 sinkers — and it has the fourth-highest fly-ball ratio (0.71 GB/FB). He ranks fifth in whiffs in the zone via his sinker. And he elevates the pitch with the 11th highest vertical height (2.54 feet) among pitchers to have thrown at least 50 sinkers. The pitch also has about eight inches of horizontal run.

He has the 27th-lowest zone-contact rate (83%) among starting pitchers.

Perhaps Heaney ought be elevating it even more, though that figures to be more difficult given his three-quarter arm slot, which creates deception. Here’s Heaney getting a whiff in the zone, missing up from his intended target against George Springer:

Heaney can get away with some mistakes with his fastball, while the changeup gives him a third offering.

This season Heaney’s out-of-zone swing and first-pitch strike rates are in line with his career averages. He has not enjoyed a velocity spike. But he’s throwing his effective curve more and his high-spin two-seamer up in the zone. More important than anything is he’s healthy.

The Angels don’t have the best staff in baseball or even in their own division. But Heaney is a reason it is effective and interesting. The staff is positioning the club as the favorite for the second Wild Card. His career line suggests something of a league-average pitcher but maybe he can use one of the more unusual approaches in the game to become something more.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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socalkdg
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socalkdg

The curve looks nasty. With all the numbers available to teams now, I wonder what is the max percentage that he could throw the curve in a game. If he throws it 35% of the time does it lose its effectiveness? I know mixing things up is a key to keeping hitters of balance, so when is too much of a good thing too much?

Stovokor
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Stovokor

Does it look nasty, though? To me, the curve/acts looks more like a changeup, and the sinker looks/acts more like a four-seam (which is weird b/c I thought pitches were classified based on spin/movement/velocity).

rasouddress
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rasouddress

Basically everyone thinks his curve is a changeup. It is so weird.