Ben Heller will not break camp with the New York Yankees as a middle reliever, yet his performance and repertoire certainly warranted a spot.
Luis Severino has earned the fourth rotation spot, Aaron Judge won the right field job, Pete Kozma will take the infield reserve position and Jonathan Holder, Bryan Mitchell and Chasen Shreve round out the middle relief unit.
One name that the latter announcement didn’t include was right-handed reliever Ben Heller, who was a mere throw-in of the deal that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland, but was the first of the package to make his major league debut.
The righty was up for a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2016 in a stint that could be best described as “shaky.” Heller tossed seven innings and surrendered five runs on 11 hits and four walks while striking out six.
He also surrendered three home runs and was notorious for giving fans heart attacks during his outings, as he had a left on base percentage of 93.8 percent, good enough for fourth-highest among Yankee relievers.
Before being called up to the Bronx, however, the 25-year-old posted a 1.69 ERA and struck out 55 batters in 48 innings between Double-A and Triple-A with a fastball that sits in the mid-to-high 90’s (has hit as high as 100 mph) and a mid-80’s slider that does a good job playing off the heater. He’s also working on a changeup which could bring him to the next level.
Coming off his brief cameo in the bigs, Heller had one “Hell” of a camp with the Yankees. Over 13 innings of work, the 25-year-old struck out 12 batters and only surrendered one run on nine hits (0.69 ERA). With those numbers, one can’t help but say that he was snubbed from a roster spot here in 2017.
But why exactly did manager Joe Girardi decide to chose Holder, who has an ERA more than two runs higher than Heller this spring, and Shreve, who maintained a 2.2 home run rate in 2016, over an electric right arm in Heller?
It probably came down to control. Over his four-year minor league career, Heller has walked 71 batters in 178.2 innings of work (3.6 BB/9) and in spring training, he walked eight batters in his 13 innings (5.5 BB/9).
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Would I agree that that’s enough to keep him off the Opening Day roster? It’s debatable, for sure.
Heller was phenomenal, but Holder struck out nine and didn’t walk a single batter 12 innings. Girardi could use another southpaw beyond Tommy Layne for those tough lefty matchups, which justifies Shreve. But, this is by no means the end of the world nor detrimental in any way, shape or form to Heller’s major league future.
With the aforementioned stock of pitches and the experience of closing in the minors (32 saves), Heller has all the weapons to be a closer in his future. Obviously, he won’t come close to that in the near future with guys like Tyler Clippard, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman in the back-end, but his potential and results this spring appeared to gone overlooked.
Nevertheless, Girardi said he needs more polishing down in the minors, and while he has been snubbed here in March, all signs point to him taking a ride on the Scranton Shuttle at some point this season to bolster the middle relief squad.