Name: Jeremy Hefner
DOB: March 11, 1986
Hefner is reminiscent of Josh Geer in many ways. Hefner, like Geer, pounds the zone aggressively, works to contact, mixes his pitches well, isn't afraid to go inside, and – perhaps most importantly – wins ball games.
"He is a very focused young man, he is very routine oriented," Fort Wayne pitching coach Tom Bradley said. "He's got, probably, the best pitchability, knows how to pitch better than anybody on our staff this year. He throws three pitches for strikes."
After being selected in the fifth-round of the 2007 draft out of Oral Roberts, Hefner was shipped to short-season Eugene where he tied for the team lead with 74 strikeouts in 62.1 innings en route to posting a 3.90 ERA.
This season, he stepped up to full-season ball and was the most consistent starter for the Fort Wayne Wizards. Across 29 games, including 24 starts, Hefner went 10-5 while notching a 3.33 ERA.
Late in the year, he was moved up to Lake Elsinore of the California League. He received one regular season start, giving up two runs in five innings. In the playoffs, Hefner allowed eight runs, but just one earned, on 11 hits across six innings.
"Hefner's velocity has improved every year and he's now sitting at around 89-92," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He has good command, a good change and really the only thing to tweak is his breaking ball; and that is to solidify the arm angle slot. He pitched well after being promoted to Lake Elsinore and some of the high run totals aren't really accurate because they were unearned runs."
The right-hander was fourth in the Midwest League at leaving runners on base with a 74.9 percent rate. When things are working well, the stat doesn't matter since hits become rare. For the season, he surrendered 7.5 hits per nine innings pitched while striking out better than a batter a frame. He had 11 starts where he yielded three hits or less. In 15 of his 24 starts, the right-hander surrendered two runs or less while going at least five innings.
"I think I can only remember maybe one start when he just got banged around a little bit," Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo said. "The guy can pitch, there's no question about it."
Hefner has seen his velocity increase over the last year and a half – back to where scouts saw him during his collegiate years. He is now hitting 89-92 mph with his heater – but it is his ability to spot the pitch, which really makes the difference. He commands the heater to both sides of the plate and doesn't stay with any notable pattern.
"Fastball – I think he threw a little bit harder in college," Bradley said. "He has showed signs the last couple of starts of hitting 90-91. He's working on a two-seamer. He needs a fastball that moves, he just can't get by with a four-seamer. He's working on that, I know that was a priority in instructional league."
The Oklahoma native has a plus changeup that he uses religiously against left-handed hitters. Its late downward action away has them reaching out over the plate to try and put wood on it – often failing miserably. Setting it up, however, is the fastball that he throws on the inner half to get left-handers off the plate. If left-handed hitters did manage to make contact, it was often a weak grounder.
"He's come a long way; he's got a great changeup, he's got a great command of it," Dascenzo said. "His slider, he's got great command of that as well. It may be a little bit big at times, and I think they worked on that in the instructional league. But, he can move the fastball around a little bit. He can throw his changeup any time he wants to. I think he's going to do just fine."
Sent to the Padres Instructional League this past fall, Hefner was charged with making strides on his slider – a pitch that didn't have consistent break.
Part of the trouble was an arm slot that was tweaked and two different versions showing up in season. He found a happy medium in instructs and made significant improvements with his slider.
The slider will give him a pitch that moves away from right-handers. This past season, right-handers were able to lift more balls and make solid contact – especially when he wasn't working in his breaking ball.
"His slider, as long as his arm speed is good, and he maintains the same arm slot, it is very, very good," Bradley said. "In the Midwest League, when it was on, guys didn't hit it, hitters really struggled with it. He could throw that pitch any time in the count.
"What's made him is really the changeup. He didn't throw it much in college and really picked it up early in instructional league last year. That's all he did was throw fastballs and changeups. They didn't let him throw any breaking balls. It paid off, it paid off for him so, his changeup, for me, has become a plus pitch. He can throw it now to right-handers and left-handers both, and he spots it pretty good.
"Combine those things with having control; you've got to make use of a well-rounded pitcher who can change speeds, throws strikes. I think he needs a little better command; everybody does, of the fastball down in the zone, and better movement on his fastball."
While he faced hitters from both sides of the plate an equal amount in 2008, right-handers managed to pound him for eight more extra base hits.
A workhorse that wants the ball, Hefner is an intellectual mind that studies his craft. He is also seeking that extra edge that can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
Hefner is one of the most advanced right-handers in the system at keeping base runners close. He varies looks and is quick to the plate, giving his catcher's a fighting chance of throwing out would be base stealers. As a result, his catchers snared 13-of-22 base runners attempting a theft while in Low-A.
"He knows how to pitch and mixes and changes speed very well," said Bradley. "He's got a good feel for the game, a good feel on the mound. Good arm speed on all of his pitches, and I look for him to do well down the road."
Conclusion: The development of his slider will be essential to his future success. He has shown his changeup is a swing-and-miss pitch but needs something to keep right-handers off-balance.
First-pitch strikes are the norm with Hefner on the hill and his ability to paint the corners bodes well for his future. As aggressive as he is, Hefner isn't beyond wasting a pitch to get a hitter lunging. Success this year could vault him up the prospect ladder – and it wouldn't surprise to see him be a candidate for skipping Lake Elsinore altogether. He has the maturity to take such a move in stride.
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