BRADENTON – Over the off-season, while we were putting together the 2016 Prospect Guide, there was zero consideration for Luis Heredia in the top 50 prospect list. The right-handed pitcher came into the system with so much promise and upside, receiving $3 M for his ability to hit mid-90s with his fastball and show spin on his curveball at the age of 16.
Heredia has since declined in the rankings, mostly because his skills didn’t develop as expected. That mid-90s fastball came with poor control. Part of this was an issue repeating his delivery, due to his overhead arm slot. The curveball showed spin, but never developed into an out pitch.
The Pirates changed Heredia’s arm slot in 2014, going for a high three-quarters angle, and a new slurve. The goal was to have all of his pitches coming out of a power arm slot, with the hope that he could throw for velocity, have more control, and develop an out pitch. The control was a bit better, but the strikeouts went down due to a poor breaking pitch, and Heredia never got comfortable with the new delivery.
Last year, the Pirates switched back to the old delivery. It was the delivery that wasn’t working before, with the curveball that wasn’t getting outs before. The results were predictable. Heredia posted a 5.44 ERA out of the rotation, along with a high walk rate (4.6 BB/9) and a low strikeout rate (5.7 K/9). It looked like his chances of developing into a prospect who could make the majors at all — not even getting into his old potential as a top of the rotation guy — was lost.
The Pirates sent him to the Mexican Winter League over the off-season, getting him work as a reliever. That was another sign that wasn’t encouraging, and his results were slightly worse there than they were in Bradenton last year.
The plan to pitch Heredia out of the bullpen carried over to the current season. It looked like the last step for him turning completely into a non-prospect. But so far, Heredia is showing signs of improvements.
Before I continue, I want to add the disclaimer that I still don’t see Heredia as a top 50 prospect in this system. It’s not even a consideration right now, so don’t think that this is where the article is going.
What I have noticed this year is that Heredia is a new pitcher. I’m not talking about your typical “struggling starter moves to the bullpen and magically has success” story. That is at play somewhat, but hasn’t led to the success so far. The biggest contribution there is a more relaxed setting in relief.
“It’s kind of different, being a starter for five years and coming out of the bullpen,” Heredia said. “It’s not the same. But I’m feeling more relaxed, and less pitches and innings. You can tell the difference there.”
“I think it’s taking some pressure off of him,” Bradenton Manager Michael Ryan said. “It’s just a spur of the moment thing for him, coming out of the pen. He doesn’t have to think about it. If it’s a bad outing, he doesn’t have another four days to think about that outing. Coming back on shorter notice out of the bullpen has helped him. I think he can concentrate a little bit more on trying to get through that one inning, instead of thinking ahead. It’s been very beneficial for him coming out of the pen. He’s a different pitcher coming out of the pen.”
The bigger change is that Heredia added a two-seam fastball this year, and has been leaning on the pitch heavily. It’s not a bad move for him, as his four seam fastball had poor control. He did a good job of pitching down in the zone, and pitching to both corners in the past, but couldn’t control the pitch enough to keep it in the strike zone. Now, he’s throwing the two-seamer, which is a pitch that you just have to throw in the strike zone and let the movement do the work, rather than hitting an exact spot. He’s also pairing that with a new slider, which has the exact opposite break as the two-seamer.
“He’s trying to get some movement on them, especially coming out of the pen,” Ryan said. “A little bit more effort now. Working on a slider. The two-seamer will help with the slider. He’s been working on his two-seam fastball.”
The velocity is up there, with Heredia’s two-seamer creeping up in the low-to-mid 90s, and his four seamer sitting 94-96. He learned the pitch in winter ball, and has been leaning on it heavily, embracing the need for ground ball outs.
So far, that has been working for him. He has a 66.7% ground ball ratio this year. Last year, he was at 50.6%. The three-quarters arm slot in 2014 had him at 52.3%. He did a good job those previous two years of working down in the zone, but this year his results have been extreme.
What is even better is that he’s not giving up any walks. Heredia still shows some control problems with the four seam fastball, but the two seamer allows him to get the pitch across the plate, leading to just one walk in 12.2 innings. That, plus the easy ground ball outs, has led to just one earned run in that span. He’s still not striking out guys, with only six on the season, or one every two innings. However, he’s finding ways to get outs with the two-seamer.
That’s right, Heredia has essentially become a sinkerball pitcher. More and more, he’s relying on that pitch, getting ground ball outs, and the lack of strikeouts are becoming less of a concern. The lack of strikeouts will prevent him from ever being a starter again, unless he can develop a strikeout pitch with the new slider. But the sinkerball approach could give him a shot at a middle relief role in the majors one day. That’s a far cry from his dream upside when he was signed, but it is an improvement over his expected upside prior to this season. It will be interesting to see how he continues with this new approach throughout the year, and whether the strong results continue.