The 2013 and 2014 seasons have both been up-and-down years for Luis Heredia.
At the start of the 2013 season, Heredia came into spring training overweight and out-of-shape, causing him to miss a big chunk of the season while he worked on his conditioning. Thus, he was only able to pitch 65 innings at Low-A West Virginia. The results were mixed. On the positive side, Heredia finished his shortened season with a 3.05 ERA to go along with 55 strikeouts. On the negative side, Heredia’s walk rate was a poor 5.1 BB/9 and he made very little progress in his development.
Because of the slow developmental progress that Heredia achieved in 2013, the Pirates returned him to West Virginia this year in hopes that he would finally get a full year of experience. But his season was halted when he began feeling pain in his shoulder on April 12th, his second start of the season.
“First game [of the season], pitching in Lexington, [I] feel good. The next day, I feel a little problem in my shoulder. Then the first home game, it started to hurt,” Heredia said.
Because of the shoulder pain, Heredia did not make another start at West Virginia until June 5th.
Through the months June and July, Heredia struggled. In the 48.2 innings he pitched during those months, Heredia had a 4.62 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP, to go along with 24 walks, and only 19 strikeouts.
Heredia’s problem was that he was not throwing enough strikes. The most glaring evidence of this problem was during his start on July 6th. Heredia quickly got two outs in the first inning, but then issued four straight walks and his night ended after just 2/3 of an inning.
But since the beginning of August, Heredia has begun to turn things around. He is beginning to look like the pitcher the Pirates hoped he would be when they signed him in 2010.
In 35.1 innings pitched in August, Heredia had a 3.06 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. But the most encouraging sign is his 21:7 K/BB ratio.
A big reason for his improvement is his ability to throw his fastball consistently for strikes. West Virginia Pitching Coach Jeff Johnson credited Heredia’s great August on his improved fastball command. Johnson said that whenever Heredia is locating his fastball, he is hard to hit.
“Fastball is everything in this game,” Johnson said. “If you’re a professional pitcher, your fastball determines how good you are. Behind in counts, [Luis] can get outs with his fastball. Ahead in counts, he can get outs with his fastball. So that’s really the biggest thing that is going to give him a chance to develop. He’s got a lot of life [on his fastball], his ball moves, he’s got velocity, he’s got deception. Not awkward but a little different. The style of guy where you don’t really see the ball very well coming from him.”
West Virginia Manager Michael Ryan is also encouraged by the progress of Heredia’s off-speed pitches.
“He’s been getting his breaking ball over a lot more where teams aren’t sitting on his fastball, because that was the only thing he could throw for strikes. His change-up is coming along really well. He’s got all three pitches that he can throw anytime. It’s fun to watch him pitch now.”
Heredia is content with his low strikeout numbers, because of the number of groundballs that he has induced. But he knows that the strikeouts will come if he continues to command his pitches, saying “I have to [be able to] throw strikes to get strikeouts.”
Maturity on and off the field has played a major role in Heredia’s progression. Since his 2013 weight issues, his conditioning and his diet have improved immensely.
“He’s done nothing but be outstanding in that area now,” Johnson said. “He eats better, his workouts are great. He’s getting there where his body is at a point where he can sustain his delivery and [throw] 100 pitches.”
Johnson said that Heredia is seeing improvements in the later part of his outings because of his dedication to conditioning.
“The other day in Lexington he pitched into the 6th inning. He was at 82 pitches going into the 6th, and he had his best fastballs of the night in the 6th inning. Last year it was the other way. His best fastballs were in the first two innings, and he was hanging on for dear life by the 5th inning. That is a big improvement, because his body can hold the delivery, and be able to repeat some stuff physically.”
As is the problem with many young pitchers, Heredia is learning how to control his emotions during his starts. In the past when things didn’t go his way, he lost focus and things begin to snowball on him. Ryan said you could tell when he was little bit defeated out on the mound. His fragile demeanor would create a big inning because Heredia “wasn’t focused on the next guy.”
Over the last month, Heredia has improved immensely in controlling his emotions on the mound. Johnson says there have been moments where he has had to go out and remind him. Heredia has learned to slow the game down, and it has helped him to get back on track.
“I need to relax and enjoy the game, and play it. That’s what [I am doing] right now. Relax in the game, play the game, throw the ball, and enjoy yourself,” explained Heredia.
Heredia recognizes that the hard work he puts in on his conditioning and his improved psyche on the mound has played a big part in his overall development and improvement.
“We all have bad days, but I’ve been working my butt off every day. [I am] consistently throwing six innings [for the] first time of my career with the Pirates…I feel great, I feel a lot better. A lot better than last year. [I am] very proud of what I do and I feel healthy.”
Johnson believes that Heredia is on the right track to maximizing his potential, but recognizes that he is still a work in progress.
“I’m sure he’ll move up [to High-A Bradenton], which he should,” Johnson said. “There isn’t anything else for him to learn here, now he needs to go learn how to win. And that’s what we’re going to do at Winter Ball in Mexico. The game is important and the scoreboard matters. He needs to learn that. That’s where he is now; he can make all the pitches. He doesn’t do it with enough regularity, but when you’re 20 years old who does? The next step for him is to take what he’s learned, and win games.”
It is encouraging to see that Luis Heredia is finally heading in a positive direction with his development after seeing a slow development for most of the last two years.