Draft NotebookHeilman's Bet Will Pay Off Big
By Joe Bush
May 27, 2001
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill.–If you look at Notre Dame’s success this season and Aaron Heilman’s 14-0 record, Heilman’s decision to spurn the Twins last summer seems like a wager well-taken.
Except to Heilman, the 6-foot-4 righthander who was the 31st pick overall last June. "I didn’t think it was a gamble," he said.
The way Heilman saw it, he could either settle for what the Twins offered and start his pro career, or secure his education, improve his pitching and draft position, and help a promising Fighting Irish squad to the program’s first College World Series since 1957.
So far, Heilman has seen fabulous returns from his return. He graduated with a degree in management information systems, developed a split-finger fastball, improved his endurance and guided Notre Dame to a midseason No. 1 ranking as well as a Big East regular-season title and regional-host status.
"We had a lot of expectations coming into this year," Heilman said. "I don’t know if I really expected to hold the No. 1 ranking for a couple of weeks, but we think it was deserved."
We’ll never know if Notre Dame would’ve accomplished all that if Heilman took the money and ran, but consider his 2001 numbers going into regional play–14-0, 1.54–and pitching coach Brian O’Connor’s words: "There’s no question he’s the greatest baseball player in Notre Dame history."
With Heilman’s place secured in Fighting Irish lore, the focus shifts to his place in the draft. All indications point to a much higher slot than last year.
Heilman says he went back to school because he and the Twins couldn’t agree on several terms, only one of them being money. Of the money, he says the two sides were "far enough apart."
Heilman has one less bargaining chip this summer, but he has raised his value not only with his results, but also with his improved endurance and expanded repertoire.
"He’s maintaining his velocity late in the ballgames," O’Connor said. "In the seventh inning, he’s still throwing 92-93 miles an hour."
O’Connor cites Heilman’s adherence to a weightlifting program, and points to a March shutout against Florida Atlantic as an example of the results. Heilman struck out the final batter with 93 mph heat.
"I really noticed a little drop in stamina toward the end of last season," Heilman said. "I didn’t want to make the same mistake."
Even more important is a split-finger pitch Heilman brought back from his days at Logansport (Ind.) High. O’Connor feared elbow damage because Heilman threw the split-finger like a forkball, so he stopped Heilman from throwing it and replaced it with a slider. When Heilman returned to Notre Dame last fall, he asked O’Connor to help him redevelop it.
The use of the 83-84 mph pitch has been limited, and it’s still a work in progress, but it’s exactly what Heilman needed. He now has a fastball, slider, changeup and split-finger, all from a three-quarters delivery O’Connor compares to Darren Dreifort’s.
"The question was, could he be a starter in the major leagues and get quality lefthanders out?" O’Connor said. "With the split-finger, he’s proven he can.
"The bottom line is, the kid’s got a 90 to 94 mile an hour sinking fastball. I’ve always told him that’s his pitch. That’s the one that makes him special."
Heilman also has a strong mental approach to the game, O’Connor said. His ERA in the fifth through seventh innings through 12 starts was 0.53.
"He’s at his best with runners in scoring position," O’Connor said. "The organization that gets him, they’re gonna have a tiger on their hands."
Heilman says that despite the difference in style and power, he admired Nolan Ryan while growing up. Not so much for his fastball, but for his demeanor.
"I’ve always tried to improve my game every time I’ve gone out there," he said. "It’s a building process. You never stop learning, and you never stop improving."
The kid sounds like a sure bet.