With Jonathon Niese going on the disabled list, the Mets’ decision on which pitcher to drop from the rotation was delayed. That’s good news for Jeremy Hefner and Shaun Marcum, the two leading candidates to be removed. Let’s take a minute to look at the pros and cons for Hefner remaining a starter, if and when Niese returns this season.
The biggest pro for Hefner is his recent performance. At the beginning of the year, Hefner was struggling with the gopher ball, as he allowed 7 HR in his first 14 IP. Not surprisingly, his ERA was 7.07 in that span. But in his last 11 starts, covering 67 IP, Hefner has turned in a 3.22 ERA with a 3.5 K/BB ratio. Additionally, he has served up just 5 HR in this span.
A 3.22 ERA means Hefner has given the Mets the equivalent of Mat Latos, who has a 3.20 ERA this season, for the past two months. If we sort qualified pitchers by ERA, that would rank 31st. Judgingly strictly be ERA, that would make Hefner’s last 11 games the equivalent of a top-end SP2.
Hefner has eight Quality Starts in this stretch and just missed another when he was removed for a pinch-hitter in a game where he had allowed just 1 ER in 5 IP. Essentially, Hefner is giving the Mets a reasonable chance to win each time he takes the mound.
The downside is that Hefner has given up a ton of unearned runs in this stretch. He has surrendered eight unearned runs, all of which have come in the last three games. While they may not be the fault of the pitcher, those runs still count in the big picture. A good pitcher should be able to overcome the shortcomings of his defense or, at the very least, not allow a big inning after an error.
The other big con with Hefner is his split versus lefty hitters. In 170 PA this year against LHB, they have posted a .322/.387/.544 slash line. That’s downright ugly. Fortunately, Hefner is equally dominating versus RHB. While lefties pound him to the tune of a .931 OPS, righties manage just a .576 OPS.
Many righties try to attack LHB with their changeup. A look at Hefner’s PITCHf/x Pitch Values shows Hefner’s change being worth (-8.7) runs, a truly horrible mark. Hefner’s best pitches this year have been his slider and curve. Generally, righties avoid throwing sliders to lefties, as they don’t want the ball breaking in on them, risking a hanger right over the heart of the plate.
So, lefties negate Hefner’s best pitch and the pitch that should work well against them turns out to be Hefner’s worst. That’s a bad combination. Hefner’s change was not nearly this poor last year and the best hope might be for some regression. But with teams stacking their lineups with lefties, it would be nice to have something besides hope.
Hefner’s best success this year has come when he busts batters with inside pitches. But, as we can see by this chart from Texas Leaguers, Hefner works predominantly away when a lefty comes to the plate, particularly with his change.
For what it’s worth, Hefner has thrown 206 changeups to lefties this year, compared to 52 sliders.
Niese’s injury will give Hefner additional time to work out his problems versus LHB. He was able to overcome his HR tendencies from earlier in the season. Now the challenge is for him to stop turning the average lefty into Mike Trout. If a combination of regression with his change and attacking LHB with more inside pitches does the trick, then Hefner could end up a permanent member of the rotation.