A member of the Mets’ organization since 2002, the St. Lucie pitcher entered the system in 2002 as a catcher. Five years later, he found himself back in the Florida State League, this time as a pitcher. Hietpas’ career may not have unfolded how he anticipated when he was a rookie, but that has not slowed his desire.
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Joseph Hietpas originally rose through the ranks as a catcher, making his way from Brooklyn to Norfolk (the Mets’ previous Triple-A affiliate) in four years. During that stretch, he maintained a reputation as a reliable, skilled catcher favored for his defense. Simultaneously, he never posed any real offensive threat, and at the time of his 2006 promotion to Triple-A, he was hitting a mere .215 with two home runs. Yet, what he provided behind the plate was enough to warrant his ascension.
During the summer of 2006, Hietpas was presented with a significant ultimatum. He was told that for his career to extend as a Met, it was necessary for him to come out from behind the mask and take to the mound. Hietpas, an established presence on the farm, reluctantly took the offer and quickly got to work on his arm.
”It was difficult, I’ve got to admit. They told me I simply wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues with the Mets as a catcher,” he said. “I’d say it was an unenthusiastic switch, but at the time it seemed like the best move for my career.”
Hietpas shook off any negative thoughts and turned it into a productive season with St. Lucie. In 26 games this season, Hietpas holds a 2.53 earned run average to compliment a 4-3 record and a .250 opponents’ batting average in 42.2 innings pitched. Given the uncertainty he faced just last winter, he is pleased with his results.
”There have been a lot ups and downs, but it’s been a learning experience from the start. I did not really know what to expect getting into this or how my arm or body would hold up throughout the season. But, my arm’s felt good most of the year,’ he explained.
Perhaps the most significant thing to overcome was just the sensation of being on the mound. He admitted that at times pitching, and all its details, still felt foreign even after an entire season. He battles with the finer points of being a pitcher: how to react to contact, where to cover on the field, and so on.
”Pitchers, I think take a lot of things for granted, reacting to the ball put in play and where they need to be at all times,” he said. “I don’t have that instinctive movement off the mound yet that everyone else does. I don’t see the game through a pitcher’s eyes yet. That’s been a huge adjustment for me, the way I jump off the mound.”
What challenges Hietpas more than standing on the mound is his mental approach to hitters. After so many years calling pitches, it was now up to him to decide on what to throw and when to throw it. What made it tougher is the fact that he was out there with an immature repertoire that he was barely comfortable throwing in the first place.
Armed with a fastball in the 88-90 miles per hour range, a curveball and changeup that may or may not show up when he wants, each batter was a test. To remedy the insecurity, Hietpas knew his game would be all about attacking hitters instead of pitching safely, which he believed would only spell trouble. Despite the aggressive thinking, he respects the fickle nature of control and consistency.
”My focus is to keep my mechanics in order,” he said. “But, I don’t have the velocity to blow guys away. I need to keep hitters off-balance. There are days when I’ll be throwing 88 and the hitters will over-swing because it looks harder, and there are days when I’ll touch 91 and the guys will hit it like it’s on a tee.”
”The off-speed stuff is a risk. In general, there have been only a few days when both my slider and changeup work on the same day. I’d say more often than not, I have the feel for one on a given day and I mix in the other the best that I can. I try not to get hurt with whatever off-speed pitch is lagging that day.”
Although fastballs make up the great majority of what he throws, his way of going after hitters has allowed him to attain very solid control. He has totaled just nine walks and attributes that low figure to what he learned from Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson.
“Being around [Coach Peterson] made me realize how important it is to get a first pitch strike as opposed to a first pitch ball, especially with what I’m throwing. My goal is to get strikes as early as possible and get the ball put in play early in the count. Now, that can come back to bite me, but I’m not a strikeout pitcher, so I’m better off drawing early contact and avoid walks at all cost,” he explained.
Lastly, it is about in-game adjustments; an area that can years for even veterans to figure out. With the frequency in which he may or may not have his stuff, he understands that last point will be a tough area to tackle.
”I think I’m getting a better grasp of my mechanics and what I need to do to get my balls in the strike zone, but, there are days when my stuff will take a step back.” he said. “What’s important for me is being able to make adjustments on the fly. I’m getting more comfortable, but it’s a long way from where I feel like I belong out there all the time.”
Hietpas has achieved a notable level of success this season given the switch. In a year which he feels was experimental at times, he takes solace in the fact that he has still be able to perform well for his team, particularly during St. Lucie’s hot streak to the finish line. What lies ahead is foggy, but he is proud of the way he has worked and contributed this year.
“For me personally, I’ve done some great things when I think where I’ve come from,” he said. “As for next year, I need to see what’s going on when all the chips fall after the season and I will go from there.”