Luis Heredia signed a minor league deal with the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, officially ending his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates. There was no real indication that they were interested in bringing him back this off-season and he was injured during the entire winter season in Mexico, so I was a bit surprised that he signed a deal already. Still just 23 years old, Heredia takes the next step in what has been an eventful pro career, which didn’t work out like the Pirates had hoped it would.
Heredia came to the Pirates with a lot of fanfare and left as an after thought. His free agent announcement this off-season was expected and due to the fact that he topped out as a reliever in Double-A, most people wrote him off at least two years ago. What we are going to do here is look at the rise and then fall into obscurity for Heredia, highlighting what went wrong along the way.
On August 10, 2010, Luis Heredia turned 16 years old. Exactly two weeks after that, the Pittsburgh Pirates officially announced that they signed him as an international free agent. As many of you who follow international signings now know, teams almost never officially announce them. That news is broken by other sources, even for the bigger signings. This year alone, the Pirates signed a total of 44 players (two contracts were later voided) and we announced 35 of them here. It’s not something big league teams often do, which makes Heredia a special case.
His deal was first announced at a $2.6 M bonus, but that was later corrected to $3 M, making it the biggest amateur international free agent deal in team history. There were plenty of reasons at that time for that high amount. He had a strong amateur track record, including a game against a team from Japan in which he wowed scouts right before signing. Heredia was already 6’6″, with a big frame. He had hit 96 MPH, and already flashed secondary pitches that were considered at least average. One source had his changeup ahead of his curve and called it a plus pitch.
His Pro Career Begins
Heredia signed a contract for the 2011 season, so the first time he pitched in a game that counted was on June 21, 2011. He gave up two runs over 2.2 innings, with three walks and no strikeouts. We actually saw him for the first time three months earlier and he was as advertised. He hit 96 MPH and dominated low-level hitters. We were able to see him three times during the GCL season and left impressed each time. Heredia pitched a total of 12 times that first season, with nine of those appearances coming before his 17th birthday.
Heredia had a 4.75 ERA, a 1.55 WHIP and a 23:19 SO/BB ratio in 30.1 innings in 2011. He actually pitched much more than that between Spring Training, Extended Spring Training and the Fall Instructional League. We got one extra view in the Instructional League before the year was over.
As far as his performance, you would have liked to see better control and more stamina, but considering his age, there weren’t any red flags as a rookie. He was 3-4 years younger than the average player in the league and he didn’t look out of place. Heredia was mainly working on fastball command during that first year. The fact that he wasn’t throwing many off-speed pitches meant that teams could sit on that fastball and it led to some damage. That wasn’t a concern for the Pirates though, because they cared more about developing a pitcher and less about the final stat line.
After the 2011 season, Heredia was rated as the fifth best prospect in the system. The sky was the limit at that point with him.
Heredia Peaks at 17 Years Old
As far as scouting reports go for Heredia, they get no better than what I heard from the New York-Penn League in 2012. As a 17-year-old, he put up a 2.71 ERA in 14 starts and showed much better control, cutting his walk rate in half.
I was covering West Virginia at the time and when one scout found out that I covered the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first thing he asked me was if I had seen Heredia at State College. At the time, I had never watched him live, though I did see plenty of video up to that point.
The scout went on to rave about Heredia for a minute or so, at which point another scout in the press box overheard the description and asked who he was talking about. When he mentioned Heredia, the second scout gave a glowing report, and then the same thing happened while he was talking. A third scout overheard and joined in the praise. It was great for me at the time, as I was soaking in everything they said and trying to remember details to add to our own scouting reports.
During my next trip to cover West Virginia, I ran into one of the same scouts and he again asked if I saw Heredia yet. I didn’t get a chance to see him live until 2013. The scout then updated me after watching Heredia again, at which point a fourth scout who saw Heredia added some notes. I had four scouts voluntarily giving me reports on Heredia and all of them described a future Major League starter with top of the rotation potential.
There was a fifth scout though, and he was the only one I actually asked for information on Heredia. His report was not glowing. In fact, he didn’t see the star pitcher everyone else saw. He mentioned the control not being strong and stamina issues, which really wasn’t a big deal for a 17-year-old, so I thought he was being a little too critical with those faults. There was one other thing he said though that stuck in my mind. Since I had not watched Heredia live, it was something I did not see until the following year.
In the middle of Heredia’s delivery, while the ball was behind his back, he would twist his wrist. The scout said that he doesn’t like pitchers that do that because it adds an unnecessary step to their delivery and makes it tougher to control their pitches. It’s actually something that Heredia still does to this day.
Since that was the last scout I talked to that year about Heredia, I never got the chance to bring it up to the others. Maybe none of them saw the wrist twist from behind home plate. Maybe it was something they did see and it didn’t bother them. To be honest, at the time he was pitching very well in a league full of college players, so I put that note in the back of my brain and went with the overwhelming group opinion.
We ranked Heredia fifth in the system after the 2012 season and he was rated just outside the top 100 prospects in the game at the time.
My First Live Look at Heredia
Heredia went to West Virginia in 2013, but he didn’t make his season debut until June 23rd. The Pirates held him back in Extended Spring Training to help limit his innings. They wanted him to be able to make regular starts until the end of the season and also put in innings during the Fall Instructional League, so he wasn’t making any starts at Pirate City until April.
We later found out that he wasn’t in the best shape when he came to camp and the Pirates changed his breaking ball for the first time.
The issue with his shape became a bigger issue after the 2013 season and was one of the things that really held him back over the years. It was his worst shape, but the fact that it was still an issue multiple times after 2013 obviously didn’t sit well with the Pirates.
The breaking ball change was from a loopy curveball to a hard slider. The hope was to give him a better strikeout pitch. I’ll note that the scouts liked his curve and two of them were eventually critical of the way the Pirates handled his breaking ball. The slider seemed like a better pitch for him at the time and his strikeouts showed a nice improvement, even if it didn’t help his overall game. Heredia took to the pitch quickly while at Pirate City and seemed to have a decent command of the pitch by the time I saw him live.
Right before his 19th birthday, I saw Heredia for the second time live and watched the game with one of the scouts who raved over him in 2012. Heredia showed a 91-93 MPH fastball and used all three of his pitches effectively in a five shutout inning performance. He worked quickly and effectively, having just one inning in which he was hit hard by the opposition. The control wasn’t great and he wasn’t hitting 96 MPH, but it was still an impressive showing considering his age.
The scout I talked to during that second game wasn’t enamored with Heredia, but he still liked him a lot. He thought that the slider had potential and he noted the stamina was improved, holding his velocity until the end of the game.
Heredia finished with a 3.05 ERA in 65 innings, with 55 strikeouts. His walk rate went back up to 2011 standards and he became a fly ball pitcher, cutting his ground ball rate in half from a strong showing in 2012.
It was the beginning of a decline for Heredia, who ranked ninth in the system in our 2014 Prospect Guide. Before he completely fell off the prospect map, there would be one more spike back in the right direction on the way.
Heredia Deals With His First Injury
The 2014 campaign for Heredia began with a high note. During Spring Training, he threw four shutout innings and was hitting 95 MPH. He was efficient in his outing to the point he needed to finish his scheduled pitch count in the bullpen after the game. That would be the high point because just three weeks later, he would leave his start for West Virginia with a shoulder injury.
I left out a detail with that Spring Training start on purpose. I talked to my go to scout again about Heredia and mentioned that they had him throwing a slurve now because the slider wasn’t effective enough. It was his third breaking ball in three years. They also changed him from an overhead arm slot to a three-quarters slot so all of his pitches were coming from the same angle. He mentioned that changing breaking balls and arm slots often is how pitchers end up getting hurt. In his mind, that shoulder injury was destined to happen and it did. It wasn’t a major injury, but it did cost Heredia two full months.
When Heredia returned in June, I got to see his fourth start back. He was getting hit hard and was very wild, but it was an odd consistency of being wild. He bounced about ten pitches in the dirt early, all fastballs. Later in the game, he was missing his fastball up and out of the zone for two innings. He went from throwing it about 55 feet to shoulder high pitches in the middle of the game and those two paths didn’t cross. The velocity was in the 89-91 range and the slurve was ineffective. He gave up three runs on five hits and three walks in five innings. I summed up the entire outing up by saying “it was a very poor outing and looked worse in person than it did on paper.”
That was the end of me seeing Heredia in 2014, but I was able to get a detailed report from my go to scout after Heredia threw six shutout innings just five days later. The report basically said that there was nothing different from his poor outing five days earlier except the deceiving stat line. He was unimpressed and considered Heredia a project at that point and not a prospect.
I wrote an article the next day here titled “Luis Heredia Headed in the Wrong Direction“. In it, I described all of the differences between 2013 when I liked a lot of what I saw and 2014 when I didn’t like much of what I saw.
One of the things I pointed out in 2014 was something that irritated the Pirates with Heredia. He was do a head tuck after his pitches, burying his head in his left chest after a pitch. I was watching one of his bullpens and every time he did it, pitching coach Jeff Johnson would reminder him not to do that. The more it happened, the louder Johnson got with his reminders and that continued with Heredia into the next year.
Heredia finished 2014 with 4.35 ERA in 89 innings, which would end up being his single-season high for innings. He lowered his walk rate, but he also posted the worst strikeout rate of his career. When we did our 2015 Prospect Guide, we ranked him 20th overall and we may have held on to him one year too long. The project signs were still there, but it’s hard to give up on someone who wasn’t even old enough to be a college draft pick yet.
The Move to the Pitcher-Friendly Florida State League
The first time we talked to Heredia in 2015 was in early February and he said that his goal for the season was to finish the year in Altoona. He was in terrific shape at that point, at least for him. He went from a high of 280 pounds in 2013, down to 240 in 2014 and then 232 that February.
The problem was that while he lost weight, he still wasn’t in good shape when he reported to camp. He threw briefly at the beginning of Spring Training, then was pulled from the mound to work on conditioning. He ended up joining Bradenton six weeks into the minor league season and there was something new…or old, should I say. Heredia was back to his old arm slot. They quickly decided that the new one didn’t work after one year and they went back to his curveball. Four years, four changes to his breaking ball.
The 2015 season wasn’t pretty for Heredia. We were at his opener and the game summary ended up being one paragraph because he couldn’t throw strikes and didn’t make it out of the first inning. It didn’t get much better after that point. He would have five starts in which he walked at least four batters. Heredia had just one start in which he didn’t allow a run, but even that game included poor control and a high pitch count.
In the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he put up stats that you would see from a high-offense league. Heredia made 21 starts and pitched a total of only 86 innings due to getting knocked out of 14 of those starts before getting through five innings. He had a 5.44 ERA, a 1.73 WHIP and a .309 BAA. His walk rate went up slightly from 2014 and his strikeouts were still too low. It was difficult to find a single positive.
It was officially the end of Heredia as a prospect in our books, though we technically came to that agreement around the time that his first start was ending.
The Switch to the Bullpen
Heredia went to Mexico for winter ball after the 2015 season. It was the first time that the Pirates allowed him to pitch winter league ball. He was moved to the bullpen there and his stats were even worse than in Bradenton during the regular season. He allowed a lot of runs and gave up more walks than strikeouts. That off-season turned out to be a sign for how the Pirates would use him in 2016.
During Spring Training in 2016, Heredia got a late start due to back tightness, which originally came up during winter ball. The Pirates were planning the move to the bullpen, but they weren’t completely writing him off as a starter at that point. He was going to pitch in a multi-inning role with a chance to move back into the rotation if he had success.
That rotation move never happened during the season. He made 45 appearances out of the bullpen and by the middle of the year, he was being used as a closer. That move was after he had a lot of success early. The big problem was that he wasn’t pitching that much, so there was never any chance to extend him into rotation innings. He had an 0.64 ERA at the halfway point, with just 28 innings pitched.
Heredia noted that he felt more comfortable in the relief role, being able to just go out and pitch when called upon instead of having five days to think about his next start. Perhaps it helped that he was always fresh for the next game because he wasn’t putting in much work, but that change didn’t help after the All-Star break.
Everything fell apart for Heredia during the second half of the season. He posted a 6.84 ERA in the second half, with a 2.28 WHIP and a .339 BAA. He also walked 22 batters in 26.1 innings. All of the positives from the first half were gone and he would go into his final season before free agency with no Double-A experience.
The first half of that season wasn’t just an experienced pitcher having success at a level he was repeating. He made some serious changes that year. Heredia ditched his four-seam fastball for a two-seamer he could control better and it was working. It was a new year, so of course he had a different breaking ball. He was back with a slider and he was actually getting his share of strikeouts with the pitch. He was also showing strong velocity in relief, hitting that 96 MPH mark that we had not seen since 2012. The strikeouts were improved and he had 2.49 GO/AO ratio on the season.
The first half was him clicking, while the second half was everything he built up, crumbling down.
The Final Chapter
Heredia pitched in Mexico again over the 2016-17 off-season and he had a little bit of success before faltering. A live game report I was able to get had him hitting 97 MPH. The Pirates showed that they still had trust in him by telling his winter team not to start him anymore after they gave him a surprise start in the middle of the season. The fact that the Pirates still controlled his winter innings meant that they thought that there was still a glimmer of hope that he could make it as a reliever.
When Heredia came to Spring Training in 2017, there was an immediate problem. He was pulled from playing and had to go through some medical tests. That turned out to be (very) high blood pressure and it led to another late start for his season. Once again, Heredia was at Pirate City trying to get into shape while the season started for everyone else. This time he had to lose 20 pounds before getting to work. He missed the first three weeks of the season and was on a limited schedule over his first two weeks with Altoona.
For the first time since 2012, there were no changes to his pitches. Heredia went into the 2017 season with the goal to make the majors and he was a more aggressive pitcher on the mound, still showing the mid-90s velocity he saw during the previous season. He had a few rough outings in May due to his control, but overall it wasn’t a bad year. It just wasn’t good enough to get him a 40-man roster spot to keep him from reaching free agency. Then his injury this off-season kept him from getting a job until now.
So What Went Wrong?
We were there every step of the way with Heredia and the list of possible things that went wrong is huge. Picking the exact point where the downfall started isn’t easy and neither is figuring out what exactly they could have done differently.
If you go by the scout I trust the most, the constant changing of his breaking ball, followed by the arm slot change (and return to original) happened far too often. He went from a curve that scouts seemed to like at age 17, to a slider, to a slurve, to a curve to a slider. That’s a lot of change over a seven-year stretch. The changes were made for his best interest, but in retrospect, they probably should have stayed with them longer. Off-hand, I don’t know another pitcher who made that many changes while in the system.
If you go by the one scout who didn’t like him even at his peak, it’s that he was doomed from the start with a delivery that had extra unnecessary moving parts, which made it hard for him to ever gain strong command. There was also his head tuck, which doesn’t help that command and was a constant issue he couldn’t overcome. You have two mechanical issues that are working against your command and you’re probably going to have trouble throwing enough strikes.
If you look at the injuries and conditioning over the years, you could blame Heredia for his own downfall. He got up to 280 pounds after his best season in the minors and while he slimmed down, it was still something he dealt with almost every spring from 2013 until 2017.
When you add all of those things up, then it’s a laundry list of items that might all be partially responsible for him never panning out.
One thing that is for sure is that he is still a big guy who will be 23 years old this season and he was sitting mid-90s last time we saw him pitch. A scout from Mexico who has watched him over the years told me that he thinks Heredia just needs a mechanical adjustment and that wasn’t happening with the Pirates. It’s possible that the Reds might be the team to get the full current potential out of him and he still ends up living out his Major League dreams down the line.
That will be something for Pirate fans to follow from afar in 2018.