With the 2021 season coming to a close, we are going to look back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers. The season isn’t over yet, of course, but there are a number of players who are on the injured list or otherwise won’t be playing the rest of the way, so we can start by looking at those guys whose seasons are done, and once the season is over we can include guys who are still in action.
Today we are looking at lefthanded pitcher Taylor Hearn.
Such a weird, up-and-down year for Hearn, who came over to Texas at the trade deadline in 2018 in the deal that sent Keone Kela to Pittsburgh. Hearn, as we all remember, was called up to make a spot start in Seattle in early 2019, was terrible, didn’t get out of the first inning, and then spent the rest of the year on the injured list. He pitched in a relief role in 2020 and did well, putting up a 3.63 ERA and a 4.11 FIP in 17.1 IP over 14 appearances.
Hearn made the Rangers Opening Day roster as a member of the bullpen but struggled, allowing a pair of runs in each of his first two outings. After a 1 inning, 3 run outing on April 20, Hearn had a 7.59 ERA and a 7.57 FIP, and other than a three inning, 7 K, one run outing on April 12, he had looked like someone who should not be on a major league pitching staff. Over the final ten days of April, Hearn made just one appearance of one inning, and it seemed to be just a matter of time until Hearn was sent back to AAA Round Rock.
Hearn got things turned around, however. Including his April 25 one inning outing, Hearn had six straight scoreless outings, then in the seventh allowed just the Zombie Runner for the Houston Astros to score in an extra inning appearance that resulted in him picking up a win when Adolis Garica hit a walk off three run homer. Taylor Hearn was good again!
And...then he wasn’t, again. Over the next month Hearn allowed 14 runs in 13.2 IP over nine appearances, including seven walks and five home runs allowed. That is very bad. The final outing in that stretch was Hearn’s second career start, which didn’t go much better than his first career start, as he once again didn’t make it out of the first inning, giving up four runs. His ERA ballooned, and there was once again talk that Hearn needed to go back to AAA. He made just one appearance, throwing nine pitches, in the next nine days.
Continuing the up and down nature of his season, Hearn had a 10 inning stretch that resulted in two runs (one earned) from the end of June to late July. He showed enough that in late July he began being used as a starter (or as a tandem starter), making twelve appearances in such a role with his pitch count gradually building up, culminating in a 91 pitch outing on September 29 against the Angels. In that twelve start/tandem start stint, Hearn threw 58.1 innings, striking out 42, walking 18 and allowing 8 home runs, putting up a 4.63 ERA and a 4.53 FIP.
Like, seemingly, just about every young player the Rangers were evaluating this year, Hearn had some good, some bad, and ended the year having shown progress and positive signs, but having not done enough for us to feel confident about what he will be able to contribute going forward. His 4.66 ERA and 4.88 xERA are in the bottom quarter of MLB, per Statcast, and his strikeout rate and walk rate were both in the bottom third.
Hearn was a four pitch pitcher this year — a change from last year, as he added a two seamer to go with his four seamer. However, against lefties, Hearn threw over 80% four seamers and sliders, with the remainder of his pitches being two seamers — he only threw one changeup to a lefty all year. Against righthanders, on the other hand, while he threw about the same percentage of four seamers (46.4% to righties, compared to 45.7% against lefthanders), he threw the two seamer a little more often, while throwing his changeup and slider about 30% of the time combined, with the change being used a little more often than the slider.
Hearn had pretty significant platoon splits — he allowed a .267/.340/.454 slash line to righthanded hitters, whereas lefties had a .198/.277/.353 slash line against Hearn this year. Significantly, Hearn struck out 26% of lefthanded hitters he faced this year while walking just 8.4%. Against righthanders, however, he struck out just 18.7% of batters and walked 10%. That, combined with better contact by righties, meant that Hearn allowed a .277 wOBA and .283 xwOBA to lefthanded hitters, while righties had a .340 wOBA and a .355 xwOBA.
Dating back to when the Rangers acquired Hearn, there has been a significant question as to whether he profiles as a starter or a reliever, and Hearn’s struggles against righthanders this year underscores that concern. Generally speaking a changeup is more effective against opposite-handed hitters, and that’s consistent with Hearn using his changeup almost exclusively against righthanders. The problem for Hearn is that his changeup was not at all effective in 2021 — his wOBA allowed on changeups to righthanders was .335, a little lower than the wOBA allowed to righties on his two seamer and four seamer, but his xwOBA on changeups was .408 — much worse than the (still bad) .362 and .374 xwOBA he allowed righties on the four seamer and two seamer. Hearn’s slider (.281 wOBA and .226 xwOBA) was actually much more effective than any other pitch against righthanders in 2021.
Hearn’s command waxed and waned through 2021, and his periods of ineffectiveness generally coincided with his periods of being unable to locate his pitches well. The combination of inconsistent command and inability to put away righthanded batters casts significant doubt over his ability to be a starting pitcher going forward. None of Hearn’s pitches, meanwhile, have more than an average amount of movement, per Statcast — his changeup has a significantly below average amount of horizontal movement, while his slider has a significantly below average amount of vertical movement — meaning command and deception with his delivery is going to be that much more important for him.
Hearn does have above-average fastball velocity, and his slider has been effective against both righties and lefties. However, unless his changeup takes significant strides, Hearn’s best use is probably as a multi-inning reliever.