A new pitch turns struggling pitcher Luis Heredia into an All-Star

Catcher Taylor Gushue at McKechnie Field Wednesday night.
Catcher Taylor Gushue at McKechnie Field Wednesday night.

Luis Heredia’s seat inside the home clubhouse at McKechnie Field has grown familiar. He had the same locker a year ago when he was in his first season as a starting pitcher for the Marauders, and it was where he spent most of his time during the four days between starts thinking about what had gone wrong.

Heredia was once considered one of the most coveted pitching prospects in Mexican history, but he couldn’t figure out to consistently get batters out at the high Class A level. He couldn’t throw his four-seam fastball for strikes, and he couldn’t go to his secondary pitches with confidence. When one start went wrong, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“Last year I was thinking a lot every time I was in the game,” Heredia said. “I was down, not enjoying what I was doing.”

Less than a year removed from the career-worst 5.44 ERA, 44 walks and 105 hits allowed season that nearly derailed his career, Heredia is the Marauders’ most unlikely all-star in Fort Myers. He has become the Marauders’ top reliever, leading the team in saves and allowing fewer than one runner per inning for the team with the second-best ERA in the Florida State League.

This rise to excellence in the bullpen isn’t improbable. The Pirates have had high hopes for Heredia since they signed him as an amateur out of Mexico as a 16-year-old in 2010. Pittsburgh gave him a $2.6-million signing bonus — although  3/4 of that went to his Mexican club — which was, as the time, the Pirates’ largest sum ever spent on an international amateur free agent. By the end of the 2011 season, Heredia was ranked as the No. 42 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus.

He steadily dipped in Baseball Prospectus’ rankings over the next few seasons, before dropping out entirely after 2013. His progress had stagnated.

Pittsburgh had him pitch two full seasons at Class A West Virginia, but he never cracked a 3.05 ERA. His second stint in West Virginia was even worse: He finished the season with a 4.15 ERA, 43 strikeouts and 33 walks in 89 innings. The Pirates sent him to the Marauders the next year anyway.

Heredia is once again repeating a level after limping to the worst season of his career in only 86 innings last year, only this time he and the organization have figured out a way to make things better. His move the bullpen hasn’t just saved his career — it’s once again made him an intriguing prospect.

“He doesn’t have the pressure that he has to go five innings. It’s either one inning or two innings,” Marauders’ manager Michael Ryan said. “He can use all of his pitches in a short amount of time. He’s super aggressive out of the bullpen.”

In all likelihood, Heredia will never live up to the promise scouts saw in him when he became one of Pittsburgh’s biggest international signings ever. As a 16-year-old blessed with a 6-foot-5 frame and loads of potential, Heredia was regarded as one of Mexico’s best pitching prospects in recent memory. He was a potential frontline starter, already reportedly throwing 92 or 93 mph as a teenager.

There isn’t an obvious reason Heredia didn’t pan out as a starting pitcher, rather a slew of small hiccups which led to his stagnation. He has struggled with fitness and nagging injuries. Even he admits he may not have had the mental fortitude to put his shaky starts behind him.

“He doesn’t have to worry about the four days in between where he might think of something, maybe if it was a bad outing before,” said Ryan, who has managed Heredia for four straight seasons.

The organization decided to move Heredia to the bullpen after last season, during instructional league and before the 21-year-old went down to play for his hometown Venados de Mazatlan in the Mexican Pacific League for the summer. Perhaps in smaller bursts he could harness the potential Pittsburgh so coveted five years earlier.

Heredia was just as streaky in Mexico as he was before, only now he was pitching against competition on average seven years older than him. He surrendered one earned run during his first five innings before finishing the winter by allowing at least one earned run during each of his final three outings. But his trip home came with a discovery and realization of how he could be successful back in affiliated baseball.

Heredia’s fastball was what originally made him an intriguing amateur. With an extreme over-the-top delivery to go along with his mammoth frame, his four-seam fastball could be imposing if he could control it, and it was most dangerous when he was getting the late movement Heredia coveted.

“I was one day working out and tried to throw it and the guy said, ‘That was really good.’ I started throwing it and throwing it every day, and it got really good.”

The late movement became more consistent. Coupled with the three-quarters release he switched to two years ago, the two-seamer now essentially acts as a sinker, diving down and in against right-handed batters. He is striking out more batters per nine innings than he has since 2013, but his success is now coming because he is, effectively, a sinkerballer, inducing ground balls at a 70-percent rate and getting more than 2  1/2 groundouts for every flyout. His strikeout numbers are a bit down from where he expected with a move to the bullpen — he has 21 in 27 innings — but it hasn’t mattered with the discovery of a new go-to pitch.

“I’m enjoying what I do,” Heredia said. “I just pitch.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2