April 29, 2011
By Shawn Sell
Second-year Bearcat pitching coach J.D. Heilmann claims his philosophy on coaching doesn't vary much from that of many of his coaching counterparts. But with the high-energy, confident UC grad something has to be different and his pupils have the numbers to back it up.
After arriving at UC prior to last season, Heilmann set right to work and less than two seasons later, he has molded the Bearcat staff into one of the top groups in the BIG EAST. Following a year in which the team's ERA was approaching seven in 2009, the Bearcats ranked third in the BIG EAST last season at 4.25. The staff has been even better this year, carrying a 3.80 team ERA into this weekend's series at Pittsburgh. So what is it about Heilmann that's so different? According to his charges, it's all about the confidence and positive energy he brings to the table.
"With J.D., everything is positive and as a pitcher that's what we need," says senior Nick Johnson. "Sometimes you just don't have the stuff and he will just say `go out there and do the best you can.' He is all positive and that's the one thing I love about him."
Whether it is at practice, at games or off the field entirely, Heilmann can often be seen flying around at a frantic pace. He hopes his energy is making an impression on the players.
"I tell our guys all the time they have to be excited about going out on the mound and pitching and coming to practice every day," he says. "Once they see this as a chore, I think guys start going backwards. I think the more energy that I can bring will rub off on our pitchers. I hope it rubs off on our guys that if Coach Heilmann is excited about being out here and bouncing around, maybe I should be too."
While Heilmann preaches mental toughness and pitching with confidence, his charges still have to prepare physically in order to succeed when called upon. Heilmann says his pitchers work mostly to prevent injury and is quick to credit strength and conditioning coach Dave Andrews for the success.
"What we stress more than anything is preventing injury with our band work," Heilmann says. "Our weight training program with Dave Andrews is flawless and I think that is a big part of our pitchers preventing injury. We long toss to strengthen our arms as much as we can. I don't think I do anything that is out of the ordinary that anybody else doesn't do. We hammer a lot on arm strength and lifting; we lift all year round and I think that is a big part of it for our pitching staff. We do the arm band stuff every day and I think all of that contributes to our guys staying healthy and getting stronger."
Heilmann shaped many of his theories on pitching from the teaching of one of his pitching coaches in college, Mike Gibbons, now an area scout from the New York Yankees. Among those principles is how to best succeed while on the mound.
"He definitely emphasizes pounding the strike zone and throwing a lot of strikes," Johnson says. "He always says our stuff will always beat their stuff; our pitching stuff will beat the hitters stuff any day of the week. If you throw strikes consistently, you are going to have success and that's what I try to do every outing."
To get back to his alma mater as the Bearcats' pitching coach, Heilmann has been on quite a journey. After starring at Moeller High School, Heilmann began his college career at Ball State, before ultimately returning home to finish his career and earn his degree from UC. His head coach in his lone season as a Bearcat in 1997? Then first-year head coach Brian Cleary. After stops at many of the colleges in the Cincinnati area and a stint with the highly successful Midland summer program, Cleary offered Heilmann the chance to come home prior to last season.
"I thought it was pretty neat coming back and getting to coach with him," he says. "It was tough leaving Xavier with the great program they have had, but coming back to my alma mater and coaching under Coach Cleary was a great opportunity for me with the BIG EAST and everything that is going on here. It was a great opportunity and I didn't have to move my family."
During his first campaign with the Bearcats, one of Heilmann's star pupils was then-senior lefty Brian Garman. After an up and down first three years mostly as a starter, Garman watched as Heilmann made the decision to make him a reliever, a move the hurler wasn't excited about to begin with.
"J.D. put me in a role that I wasn't happy with at first," says Garman, now playing professionally in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. "I straight up told him I don't want to be a bullpen guy; I want to be the starter that I have been for three years. And he was like no; we are going to make you a bullpen guy. I strongly disagreed with that idea, but by the end of that, he made me feel like the bullpen was the best possible place for me to be. There is just something about him that he knows how to pick roles and knows where to put guys in certain situations. Confidence-wise there is not a guy that will tell you anything better than J.D. He will pump you up and make you feel good about whatever you're doing. I had a great year (last year). The one soft spot in my year was when I actually went back to being a starter. It worked out well and it got me drafted. Without being put in the bullpen, I don't know if I would be playing pro ball."
In addition to mentoring the UC pitchers, Heilmann also wears the hat of recruiting coordinator for the Bearcats. Since his arrival, the Bearcats have been able to add a plethora of talented young players, including freshmen Justin Glass, Matt Ring and Matt Williams, all regular contributors as first year players this season. According to Garman, with Heilmann leading the recruiting charge, the future looks bright for the UC program.
"He is definitely a great tool that UC has as far as being able to get guys into the baseball program," he says. "He is the kind of guy that makes you feel comfortable. When you are a high school kid looking at UC and the facilities and the people you are going to be around, J.D. is definitely a highlight for people. He is the type of guy you want to be around, he is very positive and upbeat. He makes you feel good about yourself even if you aren't out on the field."
Since his arrival in Clifton, UC grad J.D. Heilmann has transformed the Bearcats into one of the BIG EAST's best pitching teams. Heilmann insists he doesn't do much different than others, but it's hard to argue with the numbers that back it up.