Ben Heller is one of the Pirates’ more talented minor league signings. Heller pitched 18.2 innings last season for the Atlanta Braves. He had some positives in the small sample size, like his 3.86 ERA, 0.96 HR/9, and 49.1% ground ball rate. However, he had a poor 13.4% walk rate with an unimpressive K% of just 19.5%. But his minor league numbers and stuff look a lot better than his MLB numbers.
Heller pitched 53 innings for the Braves and Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A affiliates, working to a 3.06 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and 1.15 WHIP. Heller kept up his strong ability to induce ground balls with a 51.4% GB%, leading to an impressive 0.51 HR/9. The control issues that plagued him in the Majors weren’t as prevalent at Triple-A, where he had a 6.4% walk rate and 28.6% strikeout rate. All Triple-A leagues used the automated strike zone, and walks had gone up dramatically across the level, so having such a low walk rate is something to note.
Heller’s sweeper will likely be his key to success. I am not exaggerating when I say it is an unhittable pitch. Last year, Heller used it against 17 different batters. Not a single one got a hit when Heller threw it. When they did swing at the pitch, they missed 78.6% of the time. It’s a small sample size, but no pitcher has ever faced 10+ batters with a pitch and had that high of a whiff rate with their sweeper.
But Heller’s sweeper isn’t the only pitch with potential. His sinker sits in the mid-90s with above-average movement. Heller’s changeup was mostly used only against lefty batters and also displayed an above-average break. Heller’s second most used pitch behind his sinker was his cutter, but while it had slightly below-average movement, it did register a +5 run value.
Heller’s change-up got hit hard last year, so it might benefit him if he dropped the pitch outright and only used his sinker, sweeper, and cutter combo. This trio of pitches all were well above average in terms of run value. I’d be curious to see how Heller could do in a larger sample size. He shouldn’t take away innings from the main core of the bullpen, but I would not mind him in a low-leverage role.
Although I wouldn’t say Heller has a zero percent chance of making the Opening Day roster, I don’t think it’s all that likely either. I would think one of the prospects or Hernandez would take priority over Heller, especially given he would need a 40-man roster spot.