Luis Heredia made his much anticipated 2012 debut tonight for the State College Spikes. The assignment to the New York Penn League was an aggressive one. Heredia went up against a lineup that was made up of 19 to 22 year old hitters. Four of the hitters were either 21 or 22 years old. Even the four 19 year olds in the lineup had two years on the right-hander.
Heredia didn’t look like a 17 year old tonight. He cruised through the first two innings. In each inning he gave up a leadoff walk, but that was the extent of the damage. He had a perfect third inning. His only hit of the night came with one out in the fourth. He responded with a double play. Heredia needed just 48 pitches to get through four shutout innings. He gave up one hit, two walks, and struck out four. That’s extremely effective for the youngest player in Spikes’ history.
Maturity Issues Hurt Heredia in Spring Training
The Luis Heredia I saw in Spring Training this year was different than the Luis Heredia I saw tonight. You could see the potential in Spring Training. You could see the good movement on the fastball. He had the makings of good secondary pitches. But he looked raw. For all of the talk about Heredia having the same upside as Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, there was a clear difference between Heredia and the others. Those two were far more polished, while Heredia was raw.
When I saw Heredia last time, he was a bit wild. He elevated a few fastballs. His breaking stuff wasn’t as sharp, and he didn’t throw it with the same confidence that he threw the fastball.
It seemed that the natural progression for Heredia was an automatic jump to State College, after pitching in the Gulf Coast League last year. But that wasn’t a guarantee. In fact, Heredia didn’t seal his promotion until his improvements recently with State College pitching coach Justin Meccage.
“I think early on there was talk about the GCL,” Spikes’ manager Dave Turgeon said. “Him and [Meccage] have a good thing going. I think the last four, five weeks of extended he made some good adjustments.”
“The biggest thing was the mentality. Very immature,” Meccage said of Heredia early in extended Spring Training. “Tried to throw everything as hard as he could. Which might be normal for a guy that gets a lot of money for how hard he throws. And just trying to get that mind as right as we could.”
There was a reason the Pirates signed Heredia. He was the top pitching prospect in the 2010 international class. But he’s shown his inexperience on the mound in the past, putting up a 4.75 ERA in 30.1 innings last year in the GCL, with a 5.6 BB/9 ratio. He struggled with some of the same issues this year in Spring Training. He just wasn’t showing his potential on the mound.
“The bullpens were always really good, and trying to get him to take his bullpens in to a game was very important,” Meccage said. “In the last month he’s really come on in that mindset.”
A Mature Pitcher Tonight
Heredia had a limit of four innings or 65 pitches tonight, whichever came first. A question was raised in the press box tonight: would he reach his pitch count first, or three innings? Based on his control issues last year, and his struggles in Spring Training, I leaned more towards the pitch count coming prior to the innings limit.
He walked his first batter of the game, and it looked similar to last year. But what came next wasn’t the same. The speedy Roman Quinn stole second base, putting Heredia in an immediate jam. But the right-hander battled back. A pop out in foul territory in right field moved Quinn to third base. Heredia kept him there with a strikeout, followed by a ground out to first to end the inning.
The second inning was the same. Heredia started out with a walk, but quickly got out of the inning with a strikeout, followed by an inning ending double play.
Heredia mixed things up in the third inning. After going heavy with the fastball in the first two innings, he switched to the off-speed stuff. He started the first batter off with a changeup for strike out, which led to his third strikeout of the night. The next batter saw two straight curveballs, both in the mid-70s, putting Heredia ahead 0-2. After a foul ball, Heredia threw a 91 MPH fastball down in the zone for his second strikeout of the inning. A ground out to second ended the easy inning.
Heredia said he felt good with the changeup tonight, working mostly off his fastball and changeup against a lefty heavy lineup. The two curveballs he threw in the third inning were the only two he threw in the game, but both featured nice movement.
“For anybody, he’s got pretty good off-speed pitches,” catcher Jacob Stallings said, when asked if Heredia’s off-speed pitches are good for a 17 year old. “He really keeps his changeup down. He made some really good changeup pitches.”
“The changeup was not there at the beginning of extended, and that’s something we pushed him with,” Justin Meccage said. “I saw a couple good ones tonight.”
Heredia gave up his first hit of the game in the fourth inning — a one out single to left field. But once again he got out of the jam with an inning ending double play.
That was how the night went for Heredia. He didn’t look like a 17 year old pitcher, going up against players who were 2, 3, 4, or 5 years older than him. He attacked opposing hitters. He showed confidence in his secondary pitches, which is something he didn’t show before on a consistent basis. He wasn’t affected by two lead-off walks, a runner at third with one out, his first hit of the game, or even making his first start at night, under the lights.
We’ve always heard of Heredia’s upside as a potential number one. Tonight I saw more of that upside than I have in the past.
Only a 17 Year Old
Think about what you were doing when you were 17 years old. You were probably at home, going to high school, maybe working a summer job that didn’t matter, living with your parents, and living in a place where you’re comfortable with your surroundings. Now think about Luis Heredia at 17.
He’s living away from his family for the first time.
He’s not working a job, but he’s working on a career.
He’s in a different country than the one he grew up in.
He’s in a city that he’s lived in for less than a week.
For all of the maturity Heredia showed on the field, his maturity with his off-field situation was shown with one simple answer. When asked about being away from home, the response from the right-hander was simple:
“This is my job. I’m going to be working.”
The biggest thing Heredia will need to work on from here is his fastball. He’s a power pitcher, which means that will be his number one pitch. He already has a good fastball, even when he’s throwing it in the 90-94 MPH range like he was tonight. The pitch is thrown on a downward plane, and located down in the zone. It’s got some good movement, with a late arm-side break. In the opinion of manager Dave Turgeon, it’s already his best pitch.
“He is about 6′ 7″, and it’s a down angle,” Turgeon said of the fastball. “And hitters just don’t see much of it. You’ll see a lot of pop ups and tappers when he’s down. You just don’t see the ball real well. He’s got the makings for a plus breaking ball. It’s inconsistent right now. He’s got a feel for a changeup. You saw a couple good ones tonight. He’s got a chance to be really good. But his best pitch by far, in my opinion, fastball.”
In the past Heredia has thrown harder than 90-94 MPH. He touched 96 MPH last Spring, and was higher than that at times this year. But the Pirates want him working at a lower velocity to focus on his command.
“We’re just trying to control the effort level, and when he needs to rear back and throw a little bit harder eventually down the road I think that will be there,” Justin Meccage said. “Right now we’d like to control the velocity and control the effort.”
The biggest strength Heredia has, according to his manager, isn’t an individual pitch. It’s his ability to adjust. Tonight that was shown as he carried over the work from extended Spring Training to his 2012 debut.
“What I saw was a good fastball that was down in the zone,” Justin Meccage said of tonight’s outing. “I thought he attacked hitters very well. I saw a very nice changeup. Those are all things that we have been working on, and he executed those today.”
“He throws off his fastball so much that it makes his changeup that more effective,” catcher Jacob Stallings said of the combination tonight.
Heredia mentioned that his biggest strengths were throwing strikes, throwing downhill, and getting ground balls. He did all three tonight. He threw 48 pitches, with 30 for strikes, and he had a 4:1 ground out to air out ratio. And that was mostly on a two pitch mix. He didn’t get much of a chance to use his curveball due to a lineup that featured six left handers and one switch hitter.
“The curveball’s always been a good pitch for him,” Meccage said. “He used it twice tonight, and I think as the season progresses you’re going to see a nice little three pitch mix for him.”
When he was signed, Heredia was said to have the makings of a plus slider as well as a potential plus fastball, plus curve, and plus changeup. For now, the slider has been shelved as Heredia focuses on the other three pitches.
“I think with young guys, I think when you go slider/breaking ball, one takes away from the other,” Turgeon said of taking the slider away. “I think down the road, maybe something you toy around with. But if the guy has the ability to spin a curveball, you have to try and develop that first. Slider/cutter down the road. Get good at who you are first before you start adding stuff and muddying the waters.”
A key for all of his pitches will be repeating his delivery. That’s what led to his control issues last year. That’s always an important thing for any pitcher. And Heredia has made some big strides in that department in the last month.
“Very mature for 17 when it comes to that,” Meccage said of the improvements Heredia has shown repeating his delivery. “Sometimes that takes a lot of years to have happen, and he’s really shown progress with that.”
Heredia was on a strict pitch count tonight of four innings or 65 pitches. That’s likely to remain the same in the future, as there’s no reason to rush a 17 year old who is already seeing an aggressive placement in short season A-ball. Turgeon did mention that there might be some flexibility down the road, but that Heredia will remain on those limits for now.
The big question after tonight will be “how does this impact Heredia’s prospect status?” We recently had him ranked seventh in the system. Part of that was because of his immaturity as a pitcher, and his struggles to date with control and command of his pitches, specifically his fastball. One start won’t change the rankings much, but if he continues putting up performances like tonight, we could start seeing him in more conversations that include top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
“I think there’s a ceiling there. I think it’s a very similar ceiling,” Meccage said of how Heredia compares to the other two starters. “Obviously he’s four to five years behind them and I think you’re going to see some good things out of him.”