The Mets seemingly have a new pitching coach in old friend Jeremy Hefner, who pitched parts of two seasons with the club in 2012-2013 before having his career derailed by elbow injuries. We’re so used to pitchers having TJ surgery, missing a year and then coming back as a reasonable facsimile of what they were before. But it didn’t work out that way for Hefner, who needed a second surgery and never got back to the majors. So, it’s nice to see him have a second career in baseball.
The Hefner hiring seems to wrap up an interesting six months or so of pitching coach drama. Back in late June, the Mets fired pitching coach Dave Eiland. Kevin Armstrong quoted Brodie Van Wagenen saying, “We have inconsistency in our starting pitching right now. And we’ve had underperformance in our bullpen. Hopefully, we can improve both of those areas.”
It was seen at the time as a shot across the bow at Mickey Callaway, the guy brought on by the previous administration because of his work with pitchers in Cleveland. But Callaway wanted Jason Bere as his pitching coach and didn’t get him. So, how demoralizing was it, really, to lose Eiland? Sure, Callaway said all the right stuff at the time, saying that Eiland’s firing was “a failure on my part.” But what else could he say?
A firing of a coach is not all that earth shaking in the big picture. But the Mets made it more interesting as they hired 82-year-old Phil Regan as his replacement. And the starters seemed to do better under Regan than they did under Eiland. There were some who were actively stumping for Regan, who was hired as the interim pitching coach, to get the job full time.
Meanwhile, once the season was over and the search for the permanent pitching coach was underway full swing, news came out that one of the reasons the Mets fired Eiland was that he wasn’t in tune with the new wave of analytics and technology. SNY writer Andy Martino mentioned that in an article on November 21 and the next day he had a follow-up piece with quotes from Eiland where the Mets’ former pitching coach directly disputed those charges, saying, “To be categorized in a group that’s anti-data or anti-technology is simply not true.”
Martino has been around for a while. He wrote about the Mets for the Daily News and before that was a beat reporter for the Phillies. He’s not some guy writing from his mom’s basement. And he’s not writing for some click-bait operation – he’s writing for the team-sanctioned MetsBlog. If Martino writes that Eiland was dismissed due in part to concerns about his embracing technology, it’s fair to speculate that he has a source in the organization who told him that.
And it’s no surprise that Eiland stepped up to defend his reputation. If it’s unchallenged that he’s anti-technology, it will severely limit his chances of landing another job as a pitching coach.
Circling back to Hefner, once he’s officially hired, the Mets will go from having the oldest pitching coach to having one of the youngest (if not the youngest) guys around. He’ll turn 34 right before Opening Day. Last year’s fifth starter, Jason Vargas, is three years older than Hefner. It’s another reminder that coaches are no longer just the drinking buddies of the manager.
It’s a weird point in the evolution of the game where coaches are allowed to be innovators but managers are expected to be yes-men for the front office.
That may be an oversimplification of things, as coaches certainly have more freedom in colleges than they do in MLB. But if a coach comes in with ideas gleaned from a college or from a baseball academy, he’ll have more room to implement those theories than a manager will on filling out a lineup or how often to hit and run.
With that idea in mind, it’s possible that Hefner is the more important hire this offseason than Carlos Beltran. And it would offer an explanation as to why Eiland was fired in the middle of the year and Callaway was kept around for the rest of the season. If you want to shake things up, don’t go after the figurehead. Instead, go where the real power is.
Will Hefner be a good pitching coach? All we can say is he has some quality arms with which to work. It would be nice if he could get a full good season from Steven Matz. But ultimately he may be judged on how well Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia do in 2020. And it’s entirely possible their success might have more to do with the type of baseballs used rather than any mechanical adjustment suggested by the pitching coach.
Still, it’s nice to have someone around with no questions necessary about how well they embrace analytics and technology. Welcome aboard Hefner, whenever you actually sign that contract.