Pittsburgh Pirates: Two Minor League Signings That Could Make an Impact in 2024

The Pirates signed Ben Heller and Ryder Ryan to minor league deals, but they could prove to be under the radar pick-ups.
Jul 1, 2023; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Ben Heller (71) pitches against
Jul 1, 2023; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Ben Heller (71) pitches against / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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Ben Heller

The Pirates signed Ben Heller during the Winter Meetings. The right-hander has mostly served as an up-and-down depth reliever since 2016, appearing in five of the eight total seasons since his 2016 debut. Last year, Heller pitched 18.2 innings for the Atlanta Braves, owing a 3.86 ERA but a poor 5.02 FIP, 1.45 WHIP, a walk rate of 13.4%, and a sub-20% strikeout rate.

But Heller pitched a lot better at Triple-A, both for the Braves and Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. He pitched 44 innings between the two teams, working to a 3.27 ERA, 3.35 FIP, and 1.23 WHIP. He had a 28.9% strikeout rate, and despite Triple-A introducing the automated strike zone, Heller only had a 7.6% walk rate. On top of that, Heller had a 51.4% ground ball rate and HR/9 of 0.41.

But aside from decent Triple-A numbers, what other reasons are there to believe Heller could be the next Ryan Borucki? Heller’s sinker displayed well above average movement last season with 25.2 inches of vertical movement (13% better than average) and 17.5 inches of horizontal break (14% better than average). Opponents had a hard time facing his cutter with a .214 batting average and slugging percentage, meaning he didn’t give up a single extra-base hit with his cutter. But the real impressive offering here is his sweeper.

Heller’s sweeper was untouchable last year, and that’s not hyperbole. He threw it 13.3% of the time and did not allow a single hit. His 78.6% whiff rate was the highest in baseball last year among pitchers who threw sweepers. It’s not just the highest this year either; it’s the highest whiff rate Statcast has ever recorded on a sweeper, and it’s not even relatively close. The next closest, Jose Cuas, has the second-highest whiff rate on a sweeper in the Statcast era, and he sat at 64.3% last year, a gap of 14.3%.

What Heller should do next year is drop his changeup. Even though he only used it against 12 batters last year, and just 12.7% of the time, five of them got a base hit (he allowed 13 hits in total). Of those five hits, two were extra-base hits, including a home run and triple. It is a small sample size, but Heller’s change-up was the only pitch in his arsenal that didn’t register a positive run value.