Back in October I referred to Jeremy Hefner as undervalued because most people looked at his traditional statistics (4-7, 5.09 ERA) and determined that he was not very good. But if you looked at other numbers, he displayed a bunch of promise. Those numbers were a 4.06 xFIP, a 1.3 fWAR and a .615 Quality Start percentage.
The Mets’ plan appeared to be to use Hefner as a long man out of the bullpen to start the season. But then Johan Santana did not come to camp healthy/strong enough to claim a spot in the rotation and Hefner was chosen to take his spot. Of course, it’s still up for debate if the Mets will actually use him in the early going or if they will take advantage of April days off to use a four-man rotation, instead.
Hefner has been solid this Spring, with a 3.10 ERA and a 1.131 WHIP in 20.1 IP. Additionally, he has 19 Ks and 6 BB so far in Grapefruit League play. The only knock so far is that he has allowed 5 HR, about three more dingers than you would expect. Last year, Hefner surrendered 9 HR in 93.2 IP, a ratio of roughly one every 10 innings.
However, if it was not fair to judge Hefner by his ERA last year, it seems a bit shaky to trot out this year’s Spring ERA as a point in his favor. So, let’s look at his FIP. The HR will definitely hurt, as FIP does not normalize for HR like xFIP does. But since we don’t have the necessary data to calculate xFIP — FIP will have to do.
And FIP is not impressed by Hefner’s Spring so far, as it spits out a 6.05 number, or nearly twice his current ERA.
It’s a red flag, to be sure. Hefner’s strikeout (8.9) and walk (2.7) numbers are both fine, so it’s the homers which are killing his FIP. Still, the HR allowed are so far out of character with what Hefner has done in his professional career that it seems safe to give him the benefit of the doubt here. In the minors, Hefner did not have a HR/9 ratio greater than 1.2 at any level. Last year in the majors it was 0.9 and currently it is 2.2 this Spring.
Last year for the Mets, Hefner had a very strong BB/9 (1.7), a solid HR/9 (0.9) and a borderline K/9 (6.0). In the minors, Hefner put up strong K rates at the lower levels but his strikeout numbers tumbled once he hit Double-A. He posted a 6.2 K/9 in Double-A and a 6.5 K/9 in Triple-A.
It’s hard to expect a guy to produce a better K/9 in the majors than he did at Double-A.
Last year, only 18 pitchers with enough IP to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboard had a K/9 below 6.0 for the season. Only half of those pitchers posted a fWAR of 2.0 – what is considered an average MLB pitcher. The best mark was the 3.8 fWAR of Matt Harrison, who had a 5.61 K/9. No other pitcher in the sample reached a 3.0 fWAR.
To be an elite pitcher in the majors, you essentially need to have a high K/9 and it’s unlikely that Hefner is capable of that over a full season. But that’s okay – there’s a big gulf between “elite” and “useless” and Hefner has an excellent chance to be in that middle ground.
To hit that sweet spot, he’ll have to limit the damage with walks and homers, something he has done throughout his professional career, even if most of that so far has occurred in the minors. Although elevated from what he did last year for the Mets, Hefner’s walk totals are solid here in Grapefruit action. For the rest of the Spring, see if he can get by without giving up another gopher ball.
If Hefner is able to limit his HR going forward and keep his other peripherals where they are currently at – he may not relinquish his spot in the rotation, even once Santana comes back. Shaun Marcum seems to be held together with spit and duct tape and Dillon Gee has not been overly impressive so far, giving two other potential roster spots for Hefner to fill if and when Santana comes back.
There’s no such thing as too much pitching and Hefner has the chance to exceed last year’s total of 93.2 IP. The opportunity to shine will be there for Hefner in 2013. The only question is if he’ll seize the moment. And he will need to keep his HR in check if he wants to remain a starting pitcher. While it’s fine to give him the benefit of the doubt in Spring Training, it’s another thing entirely if homers keep flying over the wall once the season starts.