Dodgers Hunt for Upside With Signing of Andrew Heaney

In the first notable signing of the offseason, the Dodgers and left-handed starting pitcher Andrew Heaney reportedly agreed to terms on one-year, $8.5 million contact. Though Heaney was not listed on our top 50 free agent rankings, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported on Sunday that he had quickly generated a hot market. Multiple teams were interested in the southpaw; in Sherman’s words, they were hoping to find the “next Robbie Ray.”

There are some similarities. Like Heaney, Ray signed quickly last winter, inking a one-year, $8 million pact with the Blue Jays on November 7. In Toronto, he found the strike zone for the first time in his career and turned in a Cy Young-caliber season (he’s one of the AL’s three finalists) with a 2.84 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 3.9 WAR in 193.1 innings pitched. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal also likened the contract to Ray’s deal from last offseason, if only because the general premise (an attempt at fixing a broken pitcher) and terms (Heaney signed for just $500,000 more than Ray) are quite similar.

That’s where the similarities between the two hurlers end. Heaney had a rough 2021 season, but the issues facing the two pitchers could not be more different. Ray struggled to harness his excellent stuff; Heaney, on the other hand, posted a 7.3% walk rate in 2021, a tick above his career-average into this past year (6.5%). While both pitchers flashed the potential for much more upside than their results had shown, how the Blue Jays fixed Ray and how the Dodgers will have to fix Heaney will deviate significantly.

Heaney’s issue is that he allows too much hard contact — an issue that became much worse this past season, especially after his trade to the Yankees. He allowed 13 home runs in just 35.2 innings with New York, posting the second-highest HR/9 allowed from August 1 through the end of the regular season, minimum 30 innings pitched. But even zooming out to focus on his entire career, contact quality has always been an issue. He has allowed the seventh-highest barrel-per-batted ball rate since 2015, and his .390 expected wOBA on contact in that time ranks as the 16th-highest mark. Allowing hard contact is to Heaney as walking batters was to Ray.

But there’s still a reason why the Dodgers handed Heaney an $8.5 million contract that likely guarantees him a rotation spot: because he has objectively good stuff. His 92-mph fastball isn’t overpowering, but its high spin rate could allow him to tap into a fastball up, curveball down approach that has become more common with pitchers who possess these types of characteristics. That, however, may have to come with some type of grip or release point change; despite being high spin, his fastball has much more horizontal movement than it does vertical movement. His sweeping low-slot motion is likely the culprit here, but maybe some type of shift to play up that spin more properly is an opportunity for the Dodgers to capture more value.

There’s also the question of location, as Heaney has a tendency to let too many fastballs bleed over the center of the plate, to batters of both handedness:

This propensity to flood the middle of the strike zone was aptly pointed out by Jeremy Siegel at Pitcher List, who smartly suggested that Heaney should live further up in the zone. While he could walk more batters by throwing more pitches outside of the zone, he could potentially generate many more whiffs and avoid allowing as much hard contact, too. In fact, if you look at every single fastball he threw in 2021 that generated a swing, there is a noticeable difference in whiff rate based purely on pitch height:

There’s a statistically significant relationship between Heaney’s four-seam fastball height and swings and misses. That makes sense: All hitters will whiff more frequently when offering at pitches outside of their wheelhouse. But it also suggests that there’s a very clear way to limit hard contact and also get whiffs, and that is by throwing fastballs up and out of the zone more regularly. The Dodgers should want Heaney to climb the ladder.

Then there are his other two pitches: the curveball and changeup. The former is his most-frequented secondary offering, with a 23% usage this year, though the latter doesn’t lag too far behind at 18%. The curve generated a whiff on 35% of swings and limited hitters to poor quality of contact when put into play, but Heaney struggled with control of the pitch. Almost one-quarter of his curveballs outside the strike zone were in the non-competitive “waste” attack zone, putting it in the 17th percentile among qualified pitches. His changeup had similar issues, though it was comparatively better, ranking in the 35th percentile in this rudimentary control metric. The trade-off, though, is that the pitch didn’t generate as many whiffs and yielded worse contact than the curve.

Heaney will be joining a Dodgers rotation that lost its legs over the course of the season; the lack of depth at the end of the year was one of the main reasons why they were bounced in the NLCS by the Braves. Walker Buehler and Julio Urías will both be back to anchor the top of the rotation, and Tony Gonsolin could also slide into the rotation, as could David Price, if the Dodgers don’t make any further upgrades. Notably not in the picture are Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, both free agents this offseason (though the Dodgers could certainly bring either back), and Trevor Bauer, who still faces a potential suspension from the league for sexual assault. In a perfect world, Heaney is probably the Dodgers’ No. 5 starter on Opening Day, but only as a result of other moves made during these winter months.

As of right now, the puzzle that is Andrew Heaney has been unsolved throughout his entire career, with no organization able to help him put it all together. He’s been a Dodger before — for a mere 15 minutes while the team served as the mediator between the two separate trades that moved him from the Marlins to the Angels. This time, though, he’ll actually have the opportunity to pitch in Dodger Blue, with perhaps the best shot he’s had thus far to make it all click.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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9 months ago

Thanks for the write-up!

I expected Heaney to be signed for half of that salary to be honest; the comparison to Ray is very fitting but Ray had a significantly better and longer body of work than Heaney.

Smiling Politelymember
9 months ago
Reply to  elmiguelon11

Yeah…$8 million for him is the same kind of overpay they threw at Joe Kelly when someone said, “we need someone who can throw 100!” I have very low confidence in this move working out, but it makes me mildly optimistic that the Dodgers dgaf about the cap and are going for it again.

But ofc, we know nothing till the CBA gets settled :/

9 months ago

I think the Dodgers understand they need innings and depth and it probably isn’t realistic to sign every top free agent in the market to cover their rotation next year. They have some intriguing prospects coming but they aren’t going to count on them and (if they work out) they won’t be called up until later in the season anyway.