Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Reasons For Jeremy Hefner's Marked Improvement

Jeremy Hefner was drafted by the Mets out of high school in the 46th round of the 2004 June amateur draft.  He chose not to sign.  One year later, the Mets selected Hefner in the 48th round of the June amateur draft.  Once again, Hefner did not sign.  Instead, he transferred from small Seminole State College in Oklahoma to the much-larger and more scoutable Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, where he hoped to improve his draft status.  Two years later, the San Diego Padres beat the Mets to the punch by drafting Hefner in the 5th round of the 2007 June amateur draft.

After five years of toiling in the Padres' minor league system, the last three of which were spent at the Triple-A level, San Diego gave up on Hefner, placing him on waivers, where he was claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Less than four weeks later, the Pirates also waived Hefner.  Six and a half years after the Mets were rejected by Hefner a second time, the third time was the charm, as the Mets finally got their man.

Hefner spent the first few months of 2012 at AAA-Buffalo, where he excelled, going 5-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 10 appearances (9 starts).  Hefner finally got his first call-up to the major leagues last spring, but was nothing more than a spot starter and long man out of the bullpen.  When the book finally closed on the 2012 season, Hefner had made 13 starts and 13 relief appearances for the Mets.  His numbers at the major league level were not very lucky, or very good, for that matter (4-7, 5.09 ERA, 1.37 WHIP).

Because of Johan Santana's second season-ending surgery in three years, Hefner was given another shot to join the Mets' starting rotation.  But with Zack Wheeler lurking on the blue-and-orange horizon, Hefner's spot as a starter was very much in jeopardy.  Through late May, his numbers were very Hefnerian, for lack of a better term, as the 27-year-old was 1-5 with a 4.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP when May morphed into June.  But the months weren't the only things that morphed on June 1.  Jeremy Hefner underwent a metamorphosis of his own in June.  And not even Zack Wheeler's presence on the major league roster is going to stop Hefner now.

The Pirates could have traded their bats for planks and still would have had difficulty hitting Jeremy Hefner.

Beginning with his start on June 4, Hefner has gone 3-1 with a 1.76 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in eight starts.  No pitcher in baseball - not even Clayton Kershaw or Matt Harvey - has a lower ERA since the beginning of June.  Hefner has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of those eight starts and has exhibited outstanding control, as evidenced by his 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (40 K, 8 BB) over the six-week stretch.

What has Jeremy Hefner been doing this year that he wasn't doing last year?  And how has he been able to become such a dominant pitcher after an average (at best) start to the 2013 campaign?

Let's look at Hefner's BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  In 2012, his BABIP was an unusually high .323.  That means opposing hitters were getting "lucky" more often than not, finding holes in the infield, flaring balls into the outfield, etc.  Since an average BABIP is around .300, it was reasonable to think that Hefner was just unlucky in 2012.

But looking at his first two months in 2013, Hefner's BABIP had gone down to .272, but he still had an ERA approaching 5.00 and a WHIP of 1.30.  Why would a lower BABIP not produce better results?  The reason is simple.  Home runs are not considered when calculating BABIP, as home runs are balls that go out of play, sometimes very far out of play, and Hefner gave up quite a few in April and May.

Hefner allowed ten home runs in his first 57 innings of 2013, which included a three-start stretch in April in which he allowed multiple home runs in each game (naturally, the Mets lost all three games).  Jeremy Hefner allowed 30 runs in April and May.  Fifteen of those 30 runs came via the long ball.  When half of a pitcher's runs allowed don't figure into the BABIP calculation, that's how that pitcher can have such a high ERA with a low BABIP.

So as long as Hefner could maintain his lower-than-average BABIP, all he had to do was keep the ball in the park and he would surely succeed, right?  All you need to do is look at his home run figures since June 1 to realize that that's exactly the case.

After allowing ten home runs over his first 57 innings this year, Hefner has only allowed five homers in his last 51 innings.  Since his mediocre start, Hefner has actually decreased his BABIP to .247.  Keeping the ball in the park and having hitters hit the ball in the vicinity of a fielder has allowed Hefner to post his league-leading ERA since the beginning of June.  The laws of sabermetrics say that Hefner's BABIP will eventually go back up to around .300.  However, as long as Hefner continues to keep the ball in the park, the damage will be limited once batted balls begin to find holes again.

BABIP isn't the only stat to consider when trying to determine how Jeremy Hefner has shown such improvement.  Hefner has also learned how to pitch better with runners in scoring position, has made great strides in getting the all-important first out of an inning, and is practically unhittable when he needs one out to complete a frame.

This is the face that defeated the dreaded BABIP monster.

In 2012, Hefner allowed opposing batters to hit a whopping .330 (31-for-94) against him with runners in scoring position.  But this year, he has learned how to make better pitches when a runner is within 180 feet of home plate.  In this year's RISP situations, the opposition is hitting a more reasonable .263 (20-for-76) against Hefner.

An old baseball adage says that the most important out for any pitcher is the first out.  In 2012, Jeremy Hefner did not subscribe to that adage, allowing a .321 batting average to hitters with no outs.  Those hitters also had a gaudy .496 slugging percentage against Hefner before the first out was recorded.  It was as if Hefner was facing Albert Pujols (.321 career batting average) or Carlos Beltran (.496 career slugging percentage through 2012) in every no-out situation last year.  Hefner is writing a much different story in no-out situations this year, allowing a .246 batting average and .399 slugging percentage, or numbers that most resemble those posted by Russell Martin in his career (.258 batting average, .398 slugging percentage).

Finally, Jeremy Hefner was just average in 2012 when he needed one out to complete an inning. Opposing batters hit .252 against Hefner in those situations.  This year, Hefner is nearly unhittable in two-out situations, allowing a barely there .145 batting average (18-for-124) when only one more out is needed.  In fact, the slugging percentage against Hefner this season in two-out situations (.250) is lower than the batting average against him in those spots last year.  Talk about being able to finish what he started.

Jeremy Hefner is not the dynamic pitcher Matt Harvey is.  Heck, his name is Hefner and he wasn't even the one who posed nude for ESPN The Magazine.  (Yup, Harvey was the playboy selected for that honor.)  But like Harvey, Hefner has been getting outs recently.  Lots and lots of outs.

On a team that is focusing on its young phenoms (Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler) and looking forward to the arrival of two others in the coming years (Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard), it's easy for Jeremy Hefner to get lost in the shuffle.  But over the last month and a half, opposing hitters have been the ones who have looked lost at the plate, just before shuffling their way back to the dugout after making another out.

It doesn't matter how a pitcher gets an out.  They just have to get outs.  And Jeremy Hefner has finally learned how to get them with regularity.  In his third chance with the Mets, the kid from Oklahoma is finally showing that he belongs in the major leagues.

For more on this topic, please read Jeremy Hefner: The Impossible Dream, a post written by Joe D on Mets Merized Online.  And if you haven't done so already, you can follow Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner (@jeremy_hefner53) on Twitter.


Jake Stevens said...

Plenty of stats to show he has done better but no explanation of how he has improved. Is it the increased velocity? Better location? A sharper breaking ball? I WANT ANSWERS FROM YOU OR JOEY BEAR!

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

He's done a better job at holding on runners this year (only two steals in four attempts against him in 2013 - last year, he allowed five steals in fewer innings). One of the reasons why fewer runners run against him is because there are fewer runners on base this year (1.37 WHIP in 2012, 1.15 WHIP this year).

He's less wild as well (one wild pitch this year as opposed to seven last year).

Hefner is throwing first-pitch strikes more often and has gotten more swings and misses this year. Hitters are being fooled more often this year. He's being more economical with his pitches, as evidenced by his 15 three-pitch strikeouts this year by the All-Star Break, as opposed to nine that he had all last year.