Right-hander Ben Heller made his way back to the major leagues in 2023, after a three-year absence, and gave the Braves middle relief innings here and there as they shuttled relievers back and forth all season.
Heller started his career with the New York Yankees, where he spent parts of four different season contributing out of their bullpen from 2016-2020. He was originally acquired from Cleveland in the Clint Frazier/Andrew Miller blockbuster trade, but struggled with injuries his entire Yankee tenure. Eventually, the Yankees designated him for assignment before the 2021 season, and Heller would spend the next couple of years floating around the league on minor league deals.
In the winter before the 2023 season, the Rays signed Heller to another minor league deal, and invited him to their Spring Training. He made enough of an impression to get placed on their 40-man roster, and was even called up to the majors for a week, but never appeared in game. The Rays needed to add Robert Stephenson to their 40-man after a trade in early June and unfortunately for Heller, his spot was the one on the chopping block.
On June 6, the Braves announced they had acquired Heller from the Rays for international bonus pool money. He was sent to Gwinnett to begin his Braves tenure.
What were the expectations?
Heller had always pitched like a last-man-in-the-bullpen guy when healthy; he just could never stay healthy. In his very limited major league experience before coming over to the Braves, Heller had amassed a 60 ERA-, but an unfortunate 124 FIP- and 118 xFIP- in 31 career innings pitched. The Braves needed bullpen depth and were hoping he could provide some low-leverage innings, even if the pitching quality in those innings was basically replacement level.
Considering the minimal amount they gave up to get him, it’s hard to complain too much about what Heller provided for Atlanta the short time he was there. Again, he pitched mostly lower-leverage innings (14 of 19 appearances started as low leverage) and only covered 18 innings total in 2023. His final line was the level of funky you might expect in a small sample: an 87 ERA-, but a 116 FIP- and 121 xFIP-. In that regard, his season was kind of a continuation of his earlier stints in the majors: not good pitching, but an ERA that stayed fine nonetheless. He totaled -0.1 fWAR, his third season falling below replacement in five tries so far.
What went right?
Heller looked unhittable at times, especially to right-handed batters, and could make major league hitters look foolish with his combination of a 97 mph fastball and wipeout slider:
Ben Heller's 3Ks in the 8th.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 17, 2023
Welcome back! pic.twitter.com/EmZZw93tT3
Ben Heller, Filthy Sliders.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 17, 2023
4th & 5th Ks pic.twitter.com/7VwQyj2vLU
Ben Heller, 79mph 2 Time Zone Sweeper. pic.twitter.com/8PkOlfqKtU— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 2, 2023
He would even mix in an occasional change-up to left handed hitters to keep them honest:
When he was on, it was easy to see why so many teams had given him a look over the years. His stuff is stuff that’s easy to dream on. The problem was the consistency.
Heller struck out eight batters while walking just one in his first three innings of work. You might be tempted to say that wasn’t a big deal because it was the Rockies, but his line sat at 59/69/108 through his first 11 appearances. It was only after that that things went south.
Heller’s most impactful outing of the year was probably July 2, when he relieved A.J. Minter with one out, one on in a one-run game in the eighth. He struck out Bryan de la Cruz on five pitches, and then got Joey Wendle to ground out to preserve the slim margin; the Braves extended their lead to three runs in the ninth and went on to win the game.
July 23 was a good example of the duality of Heller: asked to preserve a two-run lead in the eighth, Heller gave up a leadoff hit, erased it on a double play, then issued a walk, allowed another hit, and finally got a strikeout to escape. Here’s him getting former Brave William Contreras to hit into a double play in that frame:
What went wrong?
While the ERA looked good, the FIP and xFIP told a different story. Heller pitched to a 5.02 FIP and a 5.31 xFIP in 2023, mainly because he struggled with giving guys first base for free. He walked 11 batters in his 18 innings along with 2 more hit-by-pitches and 4 wild pitches, The stuff was good, but there were times it didn't feel like he had any clue where any of it was going. A slider that breaks as much as his can be a blessing and a curse, and when you can't control it, it’s mostly a curse.
His final seven appearances were brutal — they featured a 4/6 K/BB ratio, and both of his homers allowed. He actually had a few decent outings in that stretch, but those few games did a lot of work to tank his seasonal line.
He played a key role in the Braves’ 16-13 loss to the Diamondbacks on July 18, giving up a three-run go-ahead homer to Christian Walker after relieving Michael Tonkin. That was probably his worst game (and worst pitch) in a Braves uniform.
The Braves entered the off-season with some tricky 40-man questions to answer and quite a few injured players that were going to need to be added back. This meant more than a couple of guys were going to be designated for assignment and once again, Heller’s name was on that list. On November 1st, the Braves announced he had been outrighted to Gwinnett and a day later, Justin Toscano of the AJC reported he had elected free agency.
Ben Heller, outrighted to Triple A on Wednesday, elected free agency.— Justin Toscano (@JustinCToscano) November 2, 2023
Heller is currently a free agent and so far unsigned for the 2024 season. He seems primed to basically do the same thing in 2024 as he did in 2023: appear in the majors for a bit and provide low-leverage innings.
HIs pitches are all intriguing enough that he should see a lot of interest, even if it doesn’t come with anything resembling a major league guarantee. On the flip side, his command has been abominable, and when you combine that with the fact that his main offering is a sinker with good sink that he nonetheless throws like a four-seamer location-wise, you can understand why he’s performed the way he has to date. Still, someone will bite, just like the Braves did. It might even be the Braves, again.