Early in April, John Arguello of Cubs Den starting talking about an unheralded Kane County pitcher by the name of Michael Heesch. I must admit that I could not recall hearing that name before John had mentioned him, but the surprising reports had me actively seeking out starts of his in the box scores. As far as I could tell, Heesch had fairly mediocre stuff given his age, but decided there had to be more to the story. I finally got the chance to see Heesch, and I left feeling pretty good about his stuff.
Heesch has a very balanced and consistent delivery, which he will need to survive given his fringy stuff. He doesn’t have much of a wind-up, going with the little side step that is in-vogue right now from the third-base side of the rubber. Heesch has a normal leg-kick, separating his hands at the top of his kick, his glove hand flying out towards the first-base dugout as he begins his stride (despite this, Heesch neither generates much torque nor does he lose balance all that often). He has a slightly closed stride towards home plate that, in combination with the flailing glove hand, likely makes it a bit difficult for hitters to pick up the ball immediately. At foot-strike, Heesch is in perfect position – head up, glove in his chest, his center of mass over his front foot. His arm works well from a 3/4 slot.
This is a delivery that has been developed to promote balance and repetition. Outside of the flailing glove hand early in the delivery, Heesch’s delivery is simple. He has a firm lower half that helps him stay on balance through the final part of his delivery, and I did not see him lose his balance after throwing a pitch all day. These solid mechanics are easy to repeat, and Heesch has shown every indication of being able to do so.
Heesch does not generate much momentum, save for a noticeable acceleration as he pushes off the rubber right before foot-strike, but this is not really a problem for him. He doesn’t have the ability to throw mid-90’s, so the gains of adding momentum probably wouldn’t outweigh the cost of diminished balance and repetition. Heesch occasionally did try to add a bit more velocity, but his command was noticeably harmed and his offerings were ripped. His arm also lagged well behind his body in these instances, a movement which can increase risk of injury.
Heesch’s changeup, his best pitch by far, is too advanced for Midwest League hitters. It has great arm-side run and sink and he can command it quite well. Heesch throws his changeup with arm speed close to his fastball. Against righties, the bane of all left handed pitchers, Heesch lives in the low-outside part of the zone, where the changeup simply falls off and out of the zone. When Heesch leaves it out over the plate, it has enough movement to miss barrels and induce weak contact. It is certainly an advanced pitch for the Midwest League.
Heesch’s fastball has below average velocity, but the movement of the pitch makes it effective at this level. I saw his fastball sit 87-88 mph, touching 90, with good arm-side tail and sink, just like his changeup. Heesch avoids right handed hitters by living in the lower outer-third of the plate with his fastball, missing barrels and inducing weak contact. If Heesch could sit 89-91 as some have suggested, his fastball would be a very useful pitch. But, at 87-88, the fastball is just too hittable unless he is spotting it perfectly. Luckily for him, he has the repeatable mechanics to make strides with his command.
I didn’t get to see too much of Heesch’s curveball, but the few instances of it that I did see were not impressive. It is a mid-70’s 12-6 type curve that he cannot presently command or spin tightly. It needs a lot of work.
Control and Command
Heesch’s control has been very good this year, walking only 2.1 batters per nine innings. It’s easy to see why in person – Heesch simply throws a lot of strikes. Unfortunately, in order to prevent all those strikes from getting crushed, Heesch needs to work on his command as his margin of error is razor-thin. When I saw him, Heesch showed superior command when working low-and-away to righties, but had trouble spotting the ball in other parts of the zone.
Heesch’s approach on the mound is also going to need a lot of work. In the Midwest League, a good changeup can mow down lineup after lineup of inexperienced hitters. Heesch has taken full advantage of that, posting a solid ERA despite the fringy stuff. Heesch uses his changeup to set up his fastball, and used the low-and-away changeup as an out-pitch as often as he could. At higher levels, Heesch is going to have to set-up his pitches better, as it is unlikely a changeup heavy pitch mix is going to fool more advanced hitters.
Heesch is definitely someone to keep your eye on if he is sitting 89-91. At that velocity, his changeup becomes a deadly weapon. Heesch has the frame to log innings and the mechanics to sustain good control. He’s not flashy in any way, but the stuff should neutralize right handed hitters and keep him in games against good lineups. The real test is going to be how he does in Daytona (whenever that may be) to see if all those changeups really are legitimate. If the changeup proves legitimate, it may be time to start thinking about him as a future back-end starter.
Until then, continue to pay just a little more attention to Heesch than your average 23 year old in the Midwest League.