Per Reader Request, a Prospect Retro for Aaron Heilman.
Aaron Heilman was drafted by the Mets in the first round of the 2001 draft, out of Notre Dame, 18th overall. Although his physical ceiling was not considered to be among the best in the draft, he was rated as being very close to the majors and quite polished, even for a college senior. He posted a 2.37 ERA in seven starts in his pro debut for Class A St. Lucie, with a 39/13 K/BB in 38 innings. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2002 book, feeling that he would advance quickly.
Heilman split 2002 between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Norfolk, pitching well at both levels, combining for a 6-7 record, 3.63 ERA, and 132/44 K/BB ratio. He retained a Grade B+ rating heading into 2003. His stuff wasn't spectacular, but he showed good command and kept the ball down. I thought he would emerge as a solid major league starter, a number three type guy.
Heilman split '03 between Norfolk and the Mets. He pitched well in the minors (6-4, 3.24 in 16 starts) but was hit VERY hard in major league action: 2-7, 6.75 in 13 starts. His K/BB slipped dramatically in the majors, and he got into a bad habit of elevating the ball and giving up too many homers, a bad sign for a guy who was supposed to be a ground ball pitcher. At times he looked confused on the mound. The Mets reportedly altered his mechanics in an attempt to boost his velocity, but the change backfired.
Heilman spent most of '04 back in Triple-A, and he was less effective than in the past, going 7-10, 4.33 in 26 starts. A brief trial with the Mets resulted in a 1-3 record and a 5.46 ERA, including four homers given up in five starts. At the end of the '04 season, Heilman was regarded as a major disappointment, was being mentioned in trade rumors, and had pissed off a lot of fantasy owners who had invested in him as a relatively "safe" young pitcher.
Things completely turned around for him in '05. Used as a swingman, he concentrated on using his fastball and changeup and didn't use his curveball as much as in the past. He junked the changes the Mets made in his delivery, and went back to what worked for him in college. He kept the ball down much more effectively, and had a fine year, going 5-3, 3.17 with five saves and a 106/37 K/BB in 108 innings, allowing 87 hits and six homers. This is much more in line with his past minor league performance.
What does the future hold for Heilman? Can he succeed as a starter, or should he remain in relief? Statistically, his performance this year does not appear fluke-like to me; rather, it was his previous major league struggles that were out of context with the rest of his career. Now that he has completed the adjustment to major league competition, I think he will continue to pitch well, either as a starter or as a reliever. You have to wonder what would have happened had the Mets not altered his mechanics in the first place.