Strom and Borkowski spent about a week reworking Heidenreich's mechanics by holding him out of AFL action and putting him through drills, as well as doing some thorough video analysis. The big righty remains a work in progress, but he's feeling more confident in his stuff.
"Mechanically, I was just a little off," said Heidenreich, acquired last year from the White Sox in the Brett Myers trade. "I feel like during the season, it just continued to get progressively worse, so they had me miss a few starts and broke it down for me, and [they] showed me a lot of video and gave me a lot of drills to get more direction toward the plate, more power out of my back side."
Borkowski said the goal was to get Heidenreich to use his 6-foot-5 frame to be more of a "drop-and-drive" pitcher, instead of a "tall-and-fall" approach. As a result, his velocity is up and he's seeing some true results. Heidenreich is 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in four AFL starts.
"He's worked hard at it, and it's starting to pay off," Borkowski said. "The velocity is coming up. He's able to pound the zone a little bit better, and his stuff is a little bit more crisp. Even now, with the conviction behind his pitches, he can get away with some things, whereas he had to be perfect before that."
Heidenreich, drafted by the White Sox in the fourth round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft out of Lake Elsinore, Calif., spent most of last season at Double-A Corpus Christi in his first full year in Houston's Minor League system. His name doesn't get mentioned alongside some of the organization's top prospects like Mike Foltynewicz, Vincent Velasquez and Lance McCullers, but there is some upside.
"The ceiling will be high pending on how well this makeover takes," Borkowski said. "If he can continue to improve and become consistent, there's potential for him to pitch in the big leagues. That's going to be the issue going forward, is being consistent and trusting it and letting the ball go."
Heidenreich went 4-5 with a 7.81 ERA in 31 games, making eight starts while often getting innings in the Astros' tandem-starter configuration they employed for much of last year. His 2013 shaky results were a reflection of his inconsistency, some injury problems and adjusting to a new organization. Heidenreich admits he tried to do too much to impress a new set of eyes, and he says that he put pressure on himself.
"I might have gotten myself into a little bit of trouble thinking that way, thinking, 'There's a lot of other young arms, and you have to go out there and show them what you've got,'" he said. "I might have tried to put a little bit of pressure on myself, instead of saying, 'You know what, I'm going to go out here and pitch like I got drafted by this organization and I'm going to compete.'"
Heidenreich still has an aggressive over-the-top delivery, which includes a dramatic head jerk. That's one of the things he's continuing to work on, smoothing things out while not losing all of his aggression.
"I'm a different person on the mound," Heidenreich said. "I get a little bit too riled up. The head jerk and all the torque and turning, there's a lot of stuff we're trying to break down and minimize. Again, that gets me in trouble. It's hard to hit your spot when you're doing so much extra that you don't need to do. That's going to be the hardest thing for me to break."
But Heidenreich has seen some improvements facing some of the games top prospects in Arizona.
"It's a good feeling when you see it working," he said. "It's like, 'OK, now you kind of give yourself to them and let them have their way with you.' It helps to see the difference. When you're holding these weird grips and doing these weird things, you're like, 'What am I doing? Man, I got here doing this other stuff. Why am I doing this?' All of a sudden, you start to see what they're talking about. You're like, 'These guys know what they're doing.'"
Strom, hired shortly after the end of the season to take the reins of Houston's young up-and-coming pitcher corps, lives in Tucson, Ariz., and frequently drives up to the Phoenix area to check on Heidenreich's progress. The pair worked extensively in the bullpen Wednesday.
"He's been awesome," Heidenreich said. "The first day I met him, we talked about pitching. The second day, he came back and watched me pitch. And the third day, he started telling me, 'We're working every day until your next start.'"
The makeover continues.