As the hot stove heats up after Thanksgiving, it’s good to recall what will be at the top of the Orioles’ wishlist: starting pitching. Last week, covering free agent starting pitchers, we set our sights high: Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodón, Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga. Big names… expecting big contracts.
The Orioles probably aren’t going to be in a position to break the bank on one of these. But that doesn’t mean there’s no one out there of interest. The best of the rest, culling from some of the big-name publications, includes pitchers like Taijuan Walker, Sean Manaea, Nathan Eovaldi (CC write-up here), Zach Eflin, Noah Syndergaard, José Quintana (CC write-up here), Chris Bassitt, Ross Stripling, Michael Wacha, Corey Kluber, Jake Odorizzi, Dylan Bundy, Mike Clevinger, and Aníbal Sánchez.
Another in this tier who may be an even more plausible choice: Andrew Heaney, a 31-year-old left-hander with a career 4.56 ERA and 1.245 WHIP in nine seasons, most of them with the Los Angeles Angels. Heaney ranks No. 23 on Fangraphs’ Top 50 Free Agents for 2023, No. 18 on MLBTradeRumors’ list, and No. 47 according to Keith Law.
The lefty is not without his risks (more on that in a second), but here are three reasons why the deal could make sense: 1) he’s a left-handed veteran with a relatively affordable price tag, 2) his splits would play great in the new Oriole Park dimensions, and 3) his pitch mix has been in flux, and if there’s anything this Orioles regime loves, it’s a pitcher makeover!
With Heaney, there is good and bad, and let’s start with the bad. Known to be a boom-and-bust guy, Heaney has plenty of exciting potential, but a history of injuries that gives some pause. The lefty had Tommy John surgery in 2016, pitched just 21 innings in 2017, missed two weeks with elbow inflammation in 2018, missed two months with the same issue in 2019, and spent nearly three months on the IL with shoulder issues in 2022.
Not only that, but as Fangraphs’ Justin Choi writes, even when he is healthy, he’s a wild card:
Depending on the week or even the inning, Heaney is either a strikeout artist or a home run factory. Oh, and he can both at the same time, too. It’s a maddening rollercoaster ride that teams just can’t resist – a version of Heaney without his major flaws seems so close, and yet remains far away.
According to MLBTradeRumors, Heaney was “one of the buzziest arms on last year’s market,” thanks to a high spin and whiff rate on his fastball. Last November, the Dodgers took the plunge and signed Heaney to a one-year, $8.5 million deal. He provided them with a modest 0.7 WAR in 14 starts, but also a tidy ERA of 3.10 and 110 strikeouts in 72.2 innings. In fact, a 5.79 SO/W ratio was the best mark of his nine seasons. It was a statement, of sorts, for a not particularly flashy starter.
Now, hot stove watchers predict Heaney will get a deal in the two-to-three year range worth somewhere between $20 million and $42 million. That’s not a high price tag for the Orioles, provided they can get sufficient innings out of him.
Another point in favor of a Heaney signing are his Camden Yards-friendly splits. Undeniably homer-prone, the lefty served up 14 home runs in 2022, or one every five innings. Strikingly, 13 of those were hit by righties; just one was by a left-handed hitter. Over the length of his career, right-handed hitters slug almost 100 points more than lefties against him. You thinking what I’m thinking? Thanks to Camden Yards’ expanded dimensions in left field, the ballpark is now among the Top 3 hardest for righties to homer in. Welcome, Heaney—we can help!
Finally, Heaney’s continued experiments in his pitch mix make for an interesting story, and an interesting challenge for Orioles’ coaches, who seem pretty darn fond of tinkering with pitchers’ offerings. Here’s a chart from MLB’s BaseballSavant reflecting Heaney’s career pitch usage:
There is lots of movement here. For six seasons, Heaney threw a sinking fastball which he no longer uses. From 2017-’21, he toyed with a curveball, but he didn’t throw it last season at all. His changeup was his second-favorite pitch in 2017, and last season he barely threw it.
Instead, the Dodgers made Heaney a four-seam fastball pitcher first and foremost, pairing the pitch with a slider. This worked advantageously for all but the hitters. Although the Heaney heater is not super fast (it averaged 93 mph in 2022), its spin rate ranks in the 92nd percentile, making it a tough pitch to hit. Batters averaged just .228 against the pitch, and against his secondary pitch, the slider, they managed just a .170 average and a massive 44.5% whiff rate. Armed with this combo, Heaney put up career-best strikeout numbers, including an impressive 13.6 K/9 rate. These are just the sort of peripherals that the Orioles data-driven regime loves.
Heaney may not be an arm that’ll give you butterflies in your stomach, but you can start to see why the signing would make sense:
· He has a good amount of experience to bring to this young staff, but at 31, is far from ancient,
· His price tag is accessible (though of course, this is a reflection of his injury history and inconsistency),
· His splits would play particularly well in the new Oriole Park dimensions,
· Orioles pitching coaches could make a lot of Heaney’s pitch mix.
There was a not-so-distant time in this Orioles rebuild where the team would restrict itself to one-year contracts on starters they could get major value on, either because of injuries or poor performances in recent seasons.
Heaney is not a top-tier ace, but he is better than those guys. If the Orioles are serious about competing in the 2023 season, they should add a proven starter to take some pressure off the younger guys. With that goal in mind, Andrew Heaney is a name they should consider.