'He's one of us': How Hefner's coaching style fuels pitching staff

March 10th, 2023
Jeremy Hefner was hired to be the Mets' pitching coach in December 2019. (Anthony DiComo/MLB.com)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Early in the evening of his Major League debut, Jeremy Hefner fought back tears.

This was in 2012, five years into Hefner’s professional career. He had already been drafted three times by two different organizations, been designated for assignment and claimed off waivers twice in a month. He had been a husband and a father and a baseball player all at once. He had failed plenty. On this day, he had succeeded, throwing three scoreless innings against the Giants – just to have been dumped back to the Minors anyway.

What Hefner couldn’t have known was that those impediments would eventually turn him into one of baseball’s most sought-after pitching coaches.

“He’s still a player, in a sense,” reliever said. “He understands everything we’re going through on and off the field. He’s been there. He’s done that. He’s one of us.”

Now in his fourth season with the Mets, Hefner is tasked with maintaining the health and well-being of the most expensive staff in baseball history. Before the Mets hired Hefner in late 2019, he was a relatively obscure former player who had spent parts of two seasons in the Majors. Now, he oversees two surefire Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic closers in the sport. He must speak their language as fluently as he does his own.

Hefner is a coach, data analyst, therapist and friend to the stars. In that role, he may just be one of the most important people in the organization.


Three hours before 's first spring exhibition with his new team, Hefner stood behind a six-pack of mounds at the Mets’ Clover Park complex as pulls for his attention came from every direction.

On this morning, prospects José Butto and Denyi Reyes were throwing bullpen sessions. Neither will make the Mets’ Opening Day roster, but Hefner felt it important to watch them in person. While those two worked, Hefner engaged Nogosek in conversation as a block of high-tech cameras ensured he wouldn’t miss a pitch. He stopped for another chat with Butto and catcher , then found to make sure things were going to plan.

The familiar call of “Hef!” cut the air more than once as pitchers and coaches alike sought his attention.

Finally, after a morning in motion, Hefner climbed into a car and drove Mets manager Buck Showalter to Verlander’s game in Jupiter, arriving with less than an hour to spare.

Justin Verlander (left) stands with pitching coach Jeremy Hefner before a Spring Training game against the Miami Marlins. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Some Mets pitchers, like Verlander and , have multiple Cy Young Awards and need little instruction. Some are players who may never reach the Majors. Hefner endeavors to give them all a slice of his time and, in his words, “make their path as easy as possible.”

“I’ve lived every part of their lives,” he said. “I’ve been released. I’ve been a waiver claim. I’ve pitched in the big leagues. I’ve grinded through the Minor Leagues. I’ve been hurt. I have kids. I’ve had kids while playing. So a lot of the things that they’re going through, I’ve lived.”

A few days before Verlander’s session, Hefner sat at a Port St. Lucie restaurant wearing a bright green “Mandalorian” T-shirt, speaking animatedly about his favorite parts of the Star Wars universe. He freely admits that he’s a nerd. Briefly, Hefner considered a future in chemical engineering before accomplishing enough on the diamond to become a fifth-round Draft pick of the Padres. As he bounced through the waiver wire to Pittsburgh and New York, Hefner mixed his modest Minor League results with enough good fortune -- it happened to be his throw day when the Mets had a rotation issue -- to make his big league debut in 2012.

Officially, he lasted less than four hours in the Majors before the Mets sent him back.

“He didn’t have just like this perfect, smooth career,” said Nogosek, whose breakout 2022 season occurred only after a trade, a DFA and numerous Minor League assignments. “He’s experienced it all. That’s where it benefits us greatly, because he understands every situation.”

When Hefner retired in 2017, he knew “literally nothing” about analytics or biomechanics, two pillars of his role today. Content to spend time with his family back in Oklahoma, Hefner refused three separate invitations from Jeff Pickler, a friend and coach in the Twins organization who wanted him to join the club. Only after a few weeks did Hefner relent and fly to Fort Myers to meet with Twins brass. As Pickler suspected, he became hooked.

Signing on as an advanced scout, Hefner studied pitching data and its applications, including spin rates, usage patterns and proprietary metrics. He tried to figure out what opposing pitchers were doing to Minnesota’s hitters, then took it a step further and attempted to reverse-engineer the reasons why. Once Hefner began realizing what subtle changes could do -- a pitcher throwing his slider more frequently, for example, or a sinkerballer becoming a four-seam practitioner -- he realized there were players on his own club who could benefit from such expertise.

The Twins agreed, naming Hefner their assistant pitching coach for 2019. When Minnesota jumped from 22nd in the league in ERA to ninth under Hefner and head pitching coach Wes Johnson, the Mets swooped in to sign him away from the Twins.

“You do this long enough, you know when you’re around people who the sky is the limit,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “And that was Hef, man. Always asking all the right questions, always curious, always wanting to know more. And not only asking questions, but willing to get in there and actually do the true research.”

Jeremy Hefner talks with starting pitcher Jose Butto and catcher Nick Meyer during the first inning against Venezuela. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Now the boss, Hefner arrives to the ballpark around 4:45 a.m., when he feels best equipped to study. Before dawn, interruptions are few, allowing him to watch video and parse data from the previous day. If there’s something he wants to address with a pitcher, Hefner will make note of it before heading out on his daily run.

By the time he returns, the facility is springing to life with hot breakfast in the kitchen and players filtering into the clubhouse. That’s when the pulls for Hefner’s attention begin: meetings, conversations, bullpens, more meetings, more conversations, media requests, live BP sessions, games. No day is identical. All are busy.

“He sees the game as well as anybody right now,” said , a veteran of 12 seasons and nearly as many pitching coaches. “He can look at a guy who has a certain repertoire and pretty quickly have a good sense of how that guy is going to operate.”

As a player, Hefner borrowed as much as possible from teammates, including the grips of Johan Santana’s changeup, Jon Niese’s slider and Adam Wainwright’s curveball. He regrets not having had access to the types of information that pitchers today do, believing it could have changed his career.

As a coach, at least, Hefner can do for others what he couldn’t for himself. Take his most obvious success story, closer , who was coming off the worst season of his life when Hefner joined the Mets. Within days of accepting the role, Hefner flew to Puerto Rico to meet Díaz and iron out his mechanics. Three years later, Díaz has become one of his generation’s best relievers.

“You have babysitter pitching coaches who just want to make you feel good all the time,” Scherzer said. “That’s actually not good. You need to be told sometimes, ‘You need to get the pitch out of the middle of the plate. You’re not executing.’ When you put that onus back on the pitcher, it’s like, OK, you can get better.”


Hefner is now in charge of the most expensive pitching staff in baseball history.

Scherzer and Verlander are both on contracts worth the highest average annual value MLB has seen. Over the offseason, Díaz signed the richest deal for a reliever. New York’s top five starters alone are making $128.6 million, which is more than the entire payrolls of roughly half the league.

“There’s definitely some imposter syndrome that creeps in, right?” Hefner said. “Do I really belong here? But I think I keep going back to, I got the job. The people that are in charge ran a thorough interview, and there were multiple different types of candidates, and they chose me. And I’m not going anywhere, so I’ve got to do the job.”

Hefner is indeed going nowhere. Over the winter, the Mets quietly locked him up on a three-year contract, committing themselves to a mind they consider among the best in the game.

Pitching coaches, Scherzer says, are like umpires: “If you don’t know the umpire’s name, then he’s doing a good job.” That suits Hefner’s personality just fine. He understands that even for the best, these roles don’t last forever. He’s also plenty cognizant of his opportunity to accomplish something special in New York.

“It’s not about me and my philosophies, or that I’m the analytic guy or whatever,” Hefner said. “That’s junk. It means nothing to me. We need to win. We want to win, and that’s the only goal. Whatever we need to do to achieve that goal, we will do.”