Hebert, who will turn 20 on Wednesday, worked with a four-seam fastball that sat 91-92 mph and touched 94. He held his velocity all night: his 95th and final pitch was one of his hardest at 94 mph. Hebert explained after the game that the little extra juice on his heater came from excitement about accomplishing something he'd never done before, "that was the first time I threw eight innings in my life. That was kinda a fun experience... I was really pumped up," he said. He used it to both sides of the plate, as you can see in the video below. As a professional, Hebert, the Mets' seventh round pick out of Saugus HS in 2008 said he focused on fastball command before really turning his attention to his curveball this year.
Hebert's second pitch was a curveball at 75-76 mph that flashed the potential to be an average big league offering. He admitted that his hook is "still a work in progress," exactly as one might expect for a 19-year-old who's thrown under 100 innings as a professional. The curve has become priority number one for him recently, "It's all I've been working on pretty much, sitting in the apartment, trying to work the grips," he said. His pitching coach Jonathan Hurst agreed completely, "The curveball has been a project - it's been a lot of work."
More important than the grips, however, has been that Hebert has been trying to find a good release point out in front. Of his release, Hebert says, he's "trying to get it here" while demonstrating a release a foot and a half in front of his head, "instead of here" as he demonstrates a release near his ear. His pitching coach used similar language, noting that when Hebert "was really aggressive with it and finished it on his front side," on Saturday, the curve was nasty. Now, of course, Hebert's challenge will be to repeat his good release pitch-to-pitch and start to start. Again, his coach, Hurst, "With him, secondary pitches have been his Achilles heel. You can have all of the fastball in the world, but if you can't spin a breaking ball, or back a changeup up, it's easy for guys to eliminate pitches and that's what happened to him [in] a couple of starts. They eliminated his fastball and changeup and were just sitting back waiting for fastballs and spitting on the other stuff." You can see a good curve produce a swing and miss in the video below.
Hebert's big Saturday night almost didn't happen. The Braves' leadoff man reached on an error in the top of the first, leading to two unearned runs in the first inning in which Hebert allowed three hits off the barrel of the bat. Hebert on his first inning began with some dramatic understatement, "The way it started was not ideal. I felt like I was aiming a little bit ... and leaving the ball over the plate and they were crushing me. I just said f-it, I'm just going to let it go and it just started coming out of my hand good." First innings have been a problem for Hebert. In his eight first innings starts this year, he has given up 11 runs on 17 hits, and opponents' average of .415. Hurst, noted that "We've been working with getting him started." Once he picked up a few outs and escaped the first inning, Hebert found his rhythm.
In fact, overall Hebert seems to have turned a corner: in his last 24 innings, he's has fanned 23 and has a 3.4 ERA (9 ER/24 IP). His control has improved markedly in the last three seasons. In 2008, he walked 29 in 21 innings in the GCL (12.4 BB/9), down to 18 in 41.2 IP this year (3.9 BB/9) at a higher level.
Why has hit taken, Hebert a sixth rounder in 2008, two years to reach a potential turning point in the Appalachian League? One, Hebert was very raw when he was drafted. Because he was used as a closer in high school, by his own accounting, he had thrown only thirty innings before turning pro and only used his fastball in games, "I didn't throw a curveball at all in high school," he explained. Also, Hebert, a Southern California kid, missed development time in 2009. A big Lakers fan, he and a few teammates attended a Lakers-Magic NBA finals game in Orlando last June, and returned to St. Lucie after curfew. The players thought that they had clearance from above, but Hebert was suspended for a month and a half in what he calls an "unfortunate misunderstanding." As a result, Hebert was limited to eight appearances in the GCL last year, rather than spending time with Kingsport or Brooklyn in 2009.
Hebert is still a long way away, but the fastball/curveball combo he showed on Saturday night was better than many I see in the SAL on a nightly basis. His changeup was his third-best pitch, and he nearly stopped throwing it while allowing one hit over his final six innings of work. It was hard at 84-85 mph and showed some cut early, although he was able to straighten it out a little later in the outing. As is the case with many young pitchers, how far this pitch comes will have a lot to say about his future role. However, he doesn't need the pitch yet.
On Hebert's fastball with MLB average to slightly plus, with a curveball that at times looked like an average big league offering. At a lean 6'3", Hebert has a nice pitcher's frame with room to fill out. It's not so much about adding velocity as it is about holding his good fastball. On the curveball, he showed nice depth, and now needs to repeat his release point.
In sketching out a Mets pitching depth chart, I think it will be hard to keep Hebert out of the top 41 when we get there this fall/winter.