Given the swirling trade rumors involving John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Mike Gonzalez, and perhaps even Jim Henderson, we could see some new faces in the coming weeks. And by faces, I mean faces we can finally attach to names we keep checking in on in minor league box scores.
The Brewers organization is getting some unusual success from the upper ranks of the relief depth chart, extending past the last man in the big league bullpen and into AAA. Michael Olmsted has struggled, but it's difficult to ignore the buzz surrounding him in spring training. Jesus Sanchez is currently boasting a sub-2 ERA. Long-time farmhand Rob Wooten has posted nice peripherals to complement his 18 saves for a poor overall Sounds team. And there's a certain right-handed sidearmer whose name I can't quite recall...
Then there's Kyle Heckathorn. Former starter turned reliever halfway through last year's campaign. A little background: if you remember, he was drafted with the 47th overall pick in the 2009 draft, a supplemental pick the Brewers gained from the loss of Brian Shouse, who signed with the Rays after the 2008 season. Naturally, he was drafted as a starter - a tall, right hander with a plus sinking fastball. Sound familiar?
Anyway, after a very good sophomore campaign with the T-Rats and Manatees, he began to struggle at the AA level in 2011, which persisted into 2012. After 17 tough starts that season (a 1.401 WHIP and 5.03 ERA), the Brewers decided to convert him into a relief role, and he saw modest improvement, posting a 3.68 ERA and a much improved .649 OPSagainst in 29.1 innings to finish the season.
The improvement led to a promotion to the AAA 'pen to begin 2013, where he remains today. While he still sports a rather uninspiring 1.45 SO/BB rate, he's allowed far fewer hits/9 than he has in his career (6.8), which has so far pardoned his regressing walk and strikeout rates. His ERA just climbed a smidge above 4 after a rough outing on Saturday vs. Memphis.
He currently profiles as a Donovan Hand type - a long reliever with spot-starting capabilities. Now at the age of 25, he's climbed as far as he can on the minor league ladder.
Unfortunately, there is no minor league pitch f/x data of which I am aware, but Brooks Baseball gathered a small sample of data from Heckathorn's stint with the Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League after finishing last season at AA with the Stars. Though it only documents 84 of Heckathorn's pitches in the 13.1 innings he contributed the Dogs' cause, it's something, right?
For those too impatient to click that last link - Heckathorn throws two variations of fastballs; a 4-seamer and a sinking fastball which both sit in the low 90s (92.61 and 92.07, respectively). They made up a combined ~60% of his total offerings, with mid-80s changeups and sliders divvying up the remaining 40%.
Now to engage in some truly amateur scouting with the aid of MiLB.tv (subscribe today!). This is less about me imparting my extensive knowledge of pitchers' mechanics and more about you just getting a visual of Kyle Heckathorn. Here he is on Sunday, July 7th in relief of Hiram Burgos (4 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K). Note: these GIFs don't always align tempo-wise, so don't read too much into it:
Obviously, this is Heckathorn's 4-seam fastball. The first thing I notice is that Kyle plucks the baseball out of his right ear upon delivery. He's a big guy, but he doesn't create a ton of forward momentum with a limited stride that puts a lot of reliance on the whipping action of the throwing arm. One can imagine the risk for injury should he tighten up and try to steer it. But it isn't all bad; he appears very balanced and doesn't fall all over himself after delivery a la Mike Gonzalez.
Here's the two-seamer. Heckathorn falls off a bit harder trying to create that downward, tailing motion while keeping velocity.
Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a sinker and a changeup when there's no help from the radar gun. But this definitely looks like a changeup. You can tell partly because Kyle doesn't fall off after release. It appears to have more arm-side tail than drop, but to be fair, this one floats a bit and likely dives more when he gets it below the knees.
This is the best slider he threw in this appearance. Hard, sharp break away from the right-handed batter. Maybe I'm seeing things, but the arm angle seems ever-so-slightly more vertical on the breaking pitch.
Here's another good breaking pitch that actually looks more like a hard curve. It's likely just another variation of the slider - the arm seems a little slower through the release, so this is probably Kyle trying to let gravity pull a few more inches of break off his slider to give the hitter a different look. Creativity is a good thing.
Overall, the eye test is pretty emblematic of his minor league numbers. He has the diverse approach to pass for acceptable as a starting pitcher, but my guess is his sling-happy mechanics are difficult to repeat, making him vulnerable when fatigue sets in. He's a tweener; one above-average out pitch could give him a career in a major-league bullpen, but I don't think I see it here.
Perhaps in the coming weeks some mainstays on the Brewers' 40-man depart and Heckathorn gets rewarded for his relatively successful transition to the bullpen with a courtesy call-up. But, I wouldn't expect it to go much further than that.
But Kyle is more than welcome to prove me wrong.