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Perrotto: No, Ben Heller is Not The Worst Pitcher in Pirates’ History

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If Ben Heller’s time with the Pittsburgh Pirates is over after two games, then it’s been a short and hellish one for the veteran relief pitcher.

The Pirates designated the right-hander for assignment on Monday. The move was made to clear a roster spot for Niko Goodrum, a veteran infielder/outfielder claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Angels.

Heller had disastrous results both times he took the mound for the Pirates after having his contract purchased from Triple-A Indianapolis last Tuesday.

He made his Pirates’ debut two days later against the Los Angeles Dodgers and allowed five runs in one inning of an 11-7 loss.

Things were worse on Sunday. The Pirates brought Heller in to start the 10th inning against Minnesota and the Twins scored seven runs to snap a 4-4 tie and eventually notch an 11-5 win.

So, in two games, Heller pitched two innings and allowed nine hits, 12 runs (11 earned) and one walk while hitting four batters. The 32-year-old’s ERA was 49.50.

However, that is not the worst career ERA in the Pirates’ history. It ranks just eighth.

Three pitchers have the dreaded infinity ERA, meaning they never recorded an out — Billy Sunday (1890), Jay Parker (1899) and Bob Owchinko (2003).

Sunday was an outfielder by trade and became more famous for his work as an evangelical preacher.

Parker pitched in only one game in his major-league career, starting against the Cubs on Sept. 27, 1899 in Chicago and getting pulled after allowing two walks and a hit by pitch. Two of the runners scored.

Owchinko was the fifth overall pick in the 1976 amateur draft by the San Diego Padres after leading Eastern Michigan to an improbable berth in the College World Series. However, he had become a journeyman when he pitched his lone game for the Pirates on Sept. 5, 1983.

Owchinko was brought in to start the bottom of the ninth inning with a 6-5 lead in the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader in St. Louis. He gave up a tying home run to Andy Van Slyke – who would later become a star in Pittsburgh — and a double to Darrell Porter and was lifted.

The Cardinals won 7-6 in 10 innings and Owchinko never pitched for the Pirates again.

Clise Dudley (135.00), Mickey Mahler (63.50), Dennis Konuszewski (54.00) and Marty Lang (54.00) also had higher ERAs than Heller.

Dudley made his only appearance in a Pirates’ uniform on Sept. 15, 1933, against the Boston Bees at Forbes Field and retired one of the eight batters he faced while being charged with five runs. The 100th game of Dudley’s big-league career was also his last.

A journeyman, Mahler pitched twice for the Pirates in 1980 and was tagged for seven runs in one inning.

Konuszewski made his only MLB appearance on Aug. 4, 1985, against the Houston Astros at Three Rivers Stadium and gave up two runs in 0.1 inning.

Lang pitched twice for the 1930 Pirates, his lone major-league experience, and was tagged for 10 runs in 1.2 innings. However, he did have a very successful second career as an industrial engineer for Boeing.

Whether Heller pitches again in the major leagues remains to be seen. Before this season, he had a respectable 3.06 career ERA in 50 games with the New York Yankees (2016-17, 2019-20) and Atlanta Braves (2023).

That’s what made Heller’s meltdowns perplexing.

“I’ve been thrown in high-leverage situations in the big leagues before and it just kind of got away from me, really,” Heller said after Sunday’s loss. “I feel terrible, for the team, for myself. I feel like I’m squandering my own opportunity to be here. Yeah, it’s frustrating. At the end of the day, I cost the team a win.”

It is always instructive to remember that ballplayers are human beings.

I talked with Heller during spring training and he was extremely grateful to still be in professional baseball. A right biceps nerve injury sustained during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season nearly ended his career and he contemplated retiring at one point during his comeback.

However, Heller made it back to the big leagues. If this is the end of his major-league career, it’s a tough way to go out.

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