Following the 2011 season, the New York Mets picked up Jeremy Hefner on waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a move that probably flew under the radar of most Mets fans, as Hefner was, at that time, a 25-year-old pitcher who had not yet cracked a big league roster. His minor league numbers weren't terrible — a 4.98 ERA in the Pacific Coast League in 2011 isn't nearly as bad a 4.98 ERA in almost any other professional league — but they weren't great, either.
Last year, though, Hefner finally got his shot. Late in April, he threw three effective innings in relief, but he didn't appear regularly for the Mets until late May. From that point until the end of the season, he bounced back and forth between the Mets' rotation and bullpen, pitching 93.2 innings in the big leagues to the tune of a 5.09 ERA.
While that number isn't impressive by any means, there were some indications that he deserved better results. Hefner's 3.66 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) suggests that — based on his strikeout, walk, and home run rates — Hefner was simply better than a 5.09 ERA.
Hefner's strikeout rate was pedestrian, but his control last year was exceptional; he walked just 4.4 percent of opposing batters. Among pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched, Hefner's was the eleventh-best walk rate in baseball last year. Limiting walks alone doesn't guarantee success for any pitcher, but it certainly reduces the odds of allowing runs.
On top of that, Hefner allowed a .319 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and stranded just 63.9 percent of opposing baserunners last year. While the Mets' below-average defense likely played a role in both of those numbers, Hefner's still likely to see at least some regression to the National League averages, which last year were a .293 BABIP and 72.5 percent strand rate.
Digging a little deeper into the small-sample-size realm of Hefner's splits last year, FIP says he was significantly better as a starter, even though his ERA was almost a full run higher than it was as a reliever. In his starts, Hefner's strikeout rate was much better, his walk rate was still great, and he allowed even fewer home runs. But the problems he had in general — BABIP and strand rate — were even more dramatic in his starts.
Hefner, of course, will make his first start of the season tonight against the Marlins. He officially got his slot in the rotation when Johan Santana went on the shelf near the end of spring training, but the gig doesn't look as temporary as it did at first. It's possible that Hefner's overall production as a pitcher won't ever match the peripherals, but there's enough there to suggest that he's capable of establishing himself as a back-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues.