The importance of Jeremy Hefner

Jeremy Hefner. (MLB.com)
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Sure, Matt Harvey's been very good for the New York Mets. His E.R.A. in June was a sparkling 2.31. 

Jeremy Hefner was even better, posting a 1.80 E.R.A. in June. And he continued that excellent work in his first July start Tuesday night, allowing a run and four hits over seven innings in a 9-1 Mets victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citi Field. 

Short-sample E.R.A.s are nice, and Hefner is no Harvey. (No one is.) But there are a number of encouraging signs that in Hefner, 27, the Mets have a useful pitcher going forward.

After Tuesday night's game, Hefner described a mechanical adjustment from pitching coach Dan Warthen that he believes is making it harder for hitters to pick up his pitches.

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"Really, that's all that's changed, is a little bit of a mechanical adjustment," Hefner told reporters after the game. "And I think it's just created a little deception, and it's working for me right now."

That may be true, but whatever changes he's made in 2013 have also led to a pair of tangible improvements to his pitches themselves. In 2013, both of his fastballs, his slider and his curve have significantly more horizontal and vertical movement. And he's throwing harder than ever before. A pitcher who previously hovered around 90 miles per hour with his fastball, Hefner averaged better than 92 miles per hour with his four-seamer in June. He was just under 92 on average Tuesday night, and reached 93.87 miles per hour on his fastest offering of the evening.

The result is an increase in his strikeout rate from five per nine in the first half last season to 6.4 per nine in the second half, with that improvement carrying over into 2013. He's now at 6.8 per nine this year, and for a pitcher who limits walks extremely well, that's plenty of swings and misses to hold his own.

None of this is likely to make Hefner a star. But it should make him a handy asset, especially on a financially strapped team like the Mets, given the high cost of competent pitching on the free-agent market.

Hefner, thanks to his late blooming, isn't even arbitration-eligible until 2016, so he'll be really inexpensive for the Mets in the near future. And he won't be a free agent until 2019, at which point he'll be 33. So the Mets have him under team control for what should be his prime seasons.

Generally speaking, Hefner has been considered an afterthought, the natural expectations befitting a pitcher claimed off of waivers twice in a few months back in the winter of 2011. But he has already exceeded what the Mets could have hoped from such a pickup, and he might play a more important role on the Matt Harvey-era Mets than anyone could have predicted.

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