Buried under the avalanche of bad news that befell the New York Mets this week is this blurb: Jeremy Hefner is set to go under the knife today for reconstructive elbow surgery. In any other week this would be major news, but between the kick in the gut that was Matt Harvey’s injury announcement and the trade to Pittsburgh of John Buck and Marlon Byrd, Hefner has become a forgotten man. I think it’s only fitting to pay tribute to the Pride of Perkins, Oklahoma, whose role in New York will decrease significantly when and if he returns to the Mets in 2015.
From the moment Jeremy Hefner stepped into the Mets’ rotation in May 2012, he was set up in an impossible situation. Forced into a starting role after Mike Pelfrey’s own Tommy John and Miguel Batista’s ineffectiveness, Hef started three games in late May and early June, earning quality starts in two of his outings. When Chris Young finished his rehab and joined the rotation, Hefner was returned to his “permanent” role as longman.
Then came Dillon Gee’s blood clot, followed by Johan Santana’s downfall, and Jeremy was suddenly thrust back into the rotation to replace the man who not two months earlier had tossed the first no-hitter in New York Mets history. Hefner performed about as well as he was expected, barely getting past sixth innings, getting the job done half the time and getting rocked the other half, including that dreadful Philadelphia outing when he failed to record a single out. But Jeremy rebounded in his final two starts, closing out the season with outings of seven and 7.1 innings, the latter coming in New York’s season-ending victory over the Marlins. And so with Gee’s and Santana’s arms recovered, Jeremy Hefner and the Mets came into the 2013 season thinking he would resume his role in the bullpen, the role that got him to the majors in the first place.
Except not. Because the tragedy that is the Johan Santana story failed to produce a final act. Hefner was pushed back into the starting rotation , once again asked to do the impossible and make Mets fans forget about not one but two former Cy Young winners (the other, of course, was the Toronto-bound R.A. Dickey).
Fate would deal another blow to the Mets’ staff as Jonathon Niese was sidelined for much of the summer with his own injuries, and suddenly Hefner was looked to as a veteran of a rotation that, after Matt Harvey, wasn’t thought of as much. And that’s how Jeremy pitched for the first couple months of the season, good in one start and mediocre in the next, amassing an 0-5 record and even 5.00 ERA over his first nine starts. He found himself on an upswing over his last two starts in May, tossing a six-inning quality start against the Braves and picking up his first W of the year during the Mets’ improbable sweep of the Yankees.
Then something happened when the calendar turned to June: all of a sudden, Jeremy Hefner became unhittable. His ERA in the month stood at an astounding 1.80. He stopped walking batters, issuing just five base-on-balls between his five June starts. The beat rolled on in July: seven one-run innings against the D-backs on July 2; same thing in Milwaukee five days later; two runs in seven frames against the Pirates just before the Break. On occasions when Harvey wasn’t quite as crisp (how ominous does that sound now), Hefner was there to pick up the slack later in the week. He went into the All-Star Break with a legitimate claim as New York’s #2 starter. Not bad for a guy who was constantly earmarked for the bullpen.
Hefner’s success was a sudden occurrence, and unfortunately for him, it unraveled just as suddenly. Back-to-back shellings at the hands of those darn Phillies and the Braves. The walks came back in Miami. Good-but-not-great outings against the Royals and D-backs. Then came not a demotion to the bullpen but to the minor leagues, and the news of the torn MCL, then the Tommy John recommendation, and now Hefner Day has arrived. And as the month rolled on, Jeremy’s plight was reduced to a smaller and smaller footnote following injuries to Josh Edgin, Bobby Parnell, David Wright, and Jenrry Mejia; the promotions of Wilmer Flores and Travis d’Arnaud; the saga of the Baby Buck; and finally the Matt Harvey bombshell and Buck-Byrd trade.
It’s been a storybook year for Jeremy Hefner, but whereas R.A. Dickey’s storybook 2012 resembled a fairytale, Hefner’s feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy. But it’s important to give credit where it is due. Faced with impossible expectations, not to mention the emotional toll of a tornado tearing through his home state, Jeremy Hefner survived, thrived, and for two months became the Toast of the Town in a city that sports both Matt Harvey and Mariano Rivera. In a year that has gone south so very fast, it’s important to remember stories like this that remind us to appreciate success while it is present.
Thank you, Jeremy Hefner, for doing the best you could under exceptional circumstances. We wish you all the best on your road to recovery and are looking forward to your return to baseball, wherever that may be.