A minor league reliever the Pittsburgh Pirates should give a chance

The Pirates should consider giving Ben Heller a chance in the Major Leagues.
Feb 20, 2024; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ben Heller (60) poses for a photo
Feb 20, 2024; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ben Heller (60) poses for a photo / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen has been shaky so far this year. A unit that looked like it could be a dominant force and shut down any team after the sixth inning, the once formidable group has been plagued by poor performance and injuries. With so much uncertainty, the Pirates should think about giving Ben Heller a shot. 

The Pirates signed Heller to a minor league contract this past off-season. He pitched a handful of innings for the Atlanta Braves, working to a 3.86 ERA, 5.02 FIP, and 1.45 WHIP in 18.2 frames. Heller had a K% of 19.5 percent but a walk rate at 13.4 percent. On the plus side, he didn’t allow many home runs, had a 5.7 percent barrel rate, and a 49.1 percent ground ball rate. Heller spent most of the year for the Braves and Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple-A teams.

Heller pitched 44 innings in the minors in ‘23, pitching to the tune of a much better-looking 3.27 ERA, 3.35 FIP, and 1.23 WHIP. He allowed far fewer walks with a 7.6 percent BB% and struck out far more hitters, clocking in with a 28.9 percent K%. His ground ball rate was excellent at 51.4 percent, and he kept his flyball rate below 30 percent. 

Heller hasn’t been as ground ball-focused this year, albeit in a very small sample size of 16.2 innings. But he’s already struck out 32 batters while only allowing four free passes. Overall, he has a 5.40 ERA, 4.61 FIP, and 1.08 WHIP.

Aside from a good start to the year, here are other reasons I think Heller deserves a shot. Heller has been next to untouchable this year, and that’s not an exaggeration. Heller has an astounding 53.5 percent whiff rate. It is the highest whiff rate of any pitcher at A-Ball or Triple-A who has thrown at least 100 pitches this year (A-Ball and Triple-A are the only two levels with publicly available tracked data). Heller has his sweeper to thank for a lot of his success. Batters have swung and missed at the pitch 70.8 percent of the time. When they have made contact, they’ve only averaged 82.2 MPH in exit velocity.

Batters simply cannot touch Heller. But this isn’t a result of facing Triple-A competition. Heller had an unhittable sweeper last year, too, for the Braves. Heller did not allow a single hit off his sweeper. The 78.6 percent whiff rate he induced is the highest single-season whiff rate on any pitch in the Statcast era (since 2015). Overall, batters swung outside the strike zone against Heller’s stuff 30.4 percent of the time. He also throws a hard mid-90s sinker with above-average movement. 

Heller has been arguably the best pitcher at inducing swings and misses in the Minor Leagues this year. He displayed an elite and unhittable sweeper last year. If the Pirates call someone up, Heller should be heavily considered just for his sweeper alone. But overall, Heller deserves a look in a struggling bullpen.