A certain person in my twitter feed has been on me for about a month about Jeremy Hefner. Hefner is a guy whose overall ERA has been lousy, but has had pretty good peripherals this year for the Mets, but I've never believed - thanks to scouting reports and really really preliminary looks at him via pitchf/x - that he could sustain such a performance. Well yesterday Hefner managed to shut down the Astros - not necesarily a big accomplishment - but with strikeouts and good control, which is still impressive. It of course prompted this tweet:
HefnerLover: @garik16 hefner has a 3.92 FIP and 48.7 gb% in ~70 innings...how do u feel about him?"
Not being one to backdown from a challenge, I had to take a pitchf/x look at Hefner. Now since this is well, Jeremy Hefner, and not Matt Harvey, I'm going to try and do this with as little pictures and text as possible - pictures take forever for me to put into these posts, so you'll all have to live.
Vertical Movement: the amount of inches the ball drops/"rises" as compared to how we would expect gravity to make a pitch drop. So a Fastball with Positive 10 Vertical Movement "RISES" 10 inches more than it should if gravity was the only force acting on it and a curveball with -10 Vertical Movement drops 10 inches more than a pitch thrown that is just acted on by gravity.
Horizontal Movement: The Graph is from the view of a catcher or umpire behind home plate. So a pitch that's on the left side of the graph (and has "negative horizontal movement") moves in on righties and away from lefties. A pitch that's on the right side of the graph moves in on lefites and away from righties.
Legend for this Graph and All Subsequent Graphs:
4-Seam Fastballs = Red Dots
2-Seam Fastballs = Orange Dots
Change Ups = Dark Yellow Dots
Sliders = Blue Dots
Curveballs = Purple Dots
Again, Hefner throws 5 different pitches - which should be very familiar to Met Fans by now (I literally copy pasted my description above from the Harvey article). In Particular, his five pitches are:
1. A Four-Seam Fastball with 89-90 MPH velocity on average and average movement. To Hefner's credit, the pitch is not "straight" and approaches the plate on an angle (this is due to his aim of hte pitch)
2. A Two-Seam Fastball with 89-90 MPH with 8 inches of tail in on righties and okay sink - not sink that is great on its own, but the pitch has four inches less rise when compared to the four-seamer (hence sink. In essence, Hefner's two-seamer has the same movement as his change-up.
3. A change-up with the same movement as the two-seamer (8-9 inches of tail in on righties, 5 inches of rise (aka okay sink) and an average velocity of around 84 MPH - so 5 MPH difference between fastball;
4. A slider that is essentially what I like to call a "Slutter" - Hefner uses the pitch as an 86 MPH Slider, but the pitch has movement that borders on cutter-like movement; and
5. A Curveball at 74.5 MPH with a large 11-5 movement (6.6 inches away from righties and an average 10 inches of sink).
None of these pitches on their own stands out as being a plus pitch from movement/velocity alone - the curveball's movement is good but lacks velocity (essentially think of it as a Collin McHugh curve with less drop and the same bad velocity). Similarly, the two-seamer has decent movement for a two-seamer (unlike say Matt Harvey), lacks velocity. Hefner's Slider is an oddity here: it has good velocity for a slider....but not great movement.
In other words, if Hefner is going to be a successful pitcher in the majors, he will need to succeed in one of three other areas:
2. Mixing up his pitches well
#3 (Deception) is something we can't decipher with pitchf/x - but no scouting report I've seen speaks about Hefner's great deception (if you can prove me wrong anyhow) or he'd be a higher ranked guy, so I'm going to ignore this.
#1 (Location) is the big thing that Hefner has specialized in. In fact, if Hefner could qualify, he'd come in 4th in the majors this year in walk rate (and 2nd in the NL). But this walk rate has come sort of out of the blue: In Hefner's walk rate has been around 3 every year in the minors until this year, when even in AAA it dropped to its current ridiculous rate of 1.46. Hefner's strikeout rate is pretty meh; but his amazing walk rate (and okay ground ball rate) has kept his peripherals looking very very solid.
How Hefner Avoids Walks:
The next few sentences are going to sound obvious, but bear with me here, the following propositions are important:
1. There is a clear relationship between the percentage of pitches taken for balls by a pitcher and the amount of walks he has given up. (It's not a super large correlation for various reasons, but it's real).
2. There is a clear relationship between the percentage of pitches in the strike zone and a percentage of pitches taken for balls by a pitcher (again, not super large, but clearly real).
Now, going with the first proposition: Hefner's walk rate is a good deal caused by his ability to avoid having pitches taken for balls: He's 34th out of a little more than 200 pitchers (min. 950 pitches thrown) in ball rate.
And these numbers would make you believe that Hefner is probably pitching more pitches in the strike zone than average right? That he's able to hit the strike zone really well. But this is NOT the case. In fact, Hefner has basically been average at throwing pitches in the strike zone (slightly better than, but barely).
But is this a worrying sign?
However, this isn't necessarily a sign that regression is coming. For one thing, The correlation between hitting the zone and avoiding balls is not huge - and a few players have consistently had better ball rates than you would think given their strike zone rate (i.e. Roy Halladay).
For one thing, Hefner is slightly better than league average at getting hitters to chase pitches out of zone. But he's only JUST better on this than league average, so I wouldn't think explains Hefner's ability to avoid called balls.
For another, Hefner does manage to hit the zone when it counts: on 3 ball counts, Hefner hits the strike zone above 80% of the time. You might think this is not a surprising feat, but it's still largely ahead of the MLB Average - which is roughly 65%. Needless to say, this is an obvious way to avoid walks. And it's probably the root cause for Hefner's ability to avoid walks like crazy.
That said, It does seem likely that Hefner will regress on walks - if only because his stuff really shouldn't even be beating the league average in O-Swing, and of course because he's never been able to pull this off in the minors at all before this year, indicating Hefner may be pitching above his head. But a walk rate of around 2 last year? Certainly possible.
But this isn't the whole story about Hefner: as my friend on twitter said, he has a 48.7% GB Rate - something that sets him very apart from a guy like Chris Young. Is that sustainable?
Well for one, there's a clear problem with Hefner's GB Rate: It really hasn't been there as a starter. As a reliever, Hefner has a great GB Rate: 54.1%. As a starter....not so much, the GB Rate is only 43.1%. That's a fly ball pitcher right there, if not an extreme one.
And that makes sense really - one major aspect in getting ground balls is velocity, and Hefner lacks that on pretty much all of his pitches except the slider - and that pitch lacks the sink of a normal slider that would help get ground balls.
Against righties as a starter, Hefner's four-seamer has only gotten 6 ground balls on 22 pitches in play (27.3%). The two-seamer is clearly better for obvious reasons (a really good 9/14 GBs), but that pitch merely serves as a secondary pitch for Hefner, and can't affect things greatly. Hefner's other 3 pitches have 42% or lower GB Rates - his slider, DESPITE THE VELOCITY, only has a GB Rate of 7/21 (33%).
Against lefties as a starter, Hefner's stuff fares better at getting ground balls. The four-seamer, again Hefner's primary pitch, is again poor at getting ground balls - 9/27 (33%) GB Rate. But the two-seam fastball is a larger weapon for Hefner against lefties and is still a good ground ball pitch (58.9%, 10/17). The change-up is acceptable as a ground ball pitch (47.6%) as Hefner's other major weapon and Hefner's slider has gotten ground balls on 9/12 balls in play so far (75%).
But again, the problem is Hefner's four-seamer doesn't get great GBs, so even against lefties Hefner only has a 46% GB Rate against lefties. And against righties as a starter, that rate is 39.4% - a really poor rate.
Conclusion - What do the Mets Have in Hefner?
Making a bold prediction as to Hefner is beyond me, but it's clear that he's not as good as his peripherals as a starter - mainly due to his ground ball rate. His walk rate could remain excellent, though I doubt it will remain elite for the reasons I've already stated. Where does that leave Hefner? Probably a guy with a 5.5 K/9, 2BB/9, and 43% GB Rate as a starter. Which is basically a little worse than the 2012 version of Joe Saunders, so roughly a 4.25 or so xFIP. That would put Hefner in the bottom 20% of qualified NL Starters this year - so, an average 5th starter....not something to get that excited about.
This is not to say he couldn't prove me wrong, or develop further. But really, looking at his stuff makes it seem like there really isn't THAT much there. Is he better than Chris Young? Sure - Young's lousy. Is that an okay spot starter? Yeah more or less. Would the Mets die with him as a 5th starter? Certainly not. But the Mets have plenty of arms that should be ahead of Hefner on the depth chart (Dickey, Niese, Gee, Johan, Harvey, McHugh, eventually Wheeler, etc.), and Hefner profiles better as a reliever...so that's where he should be next year.