By: Brian Frank
Tyler Heineman grew up in Los Angeles, where he pitched and played second base and shortstop. In tenth grade, he transitioned to playing catcher full-time.
“There was a need,” he explained about the change of positions during a recent interview at Sahlen Field. “Also, I played hockey growing up, until tenth grade – and I was a goalie. I liked having gear on, so it kind of fit. And then I just liked it, I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed putting on gear and kind of being a goalie behind the plate.”
Heineman behind the plate with the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Heineman is a natural right-handed hitter. He began switch-hitting at about the same time he became a catcher.
“My dad would tell me when I was younger that the quickest way to the big leagues is a switch-hitting catcher, or a left-handed hitting catcher,” he remembered. “I always had dreams and aspirations to play in the big leagues, but honestly, I kind of just wanted to see if I could do it (switch-hit).”
He hit .490 as a sophomore, .619 as a junior, and .487 as a senior at Windward School in Los Angeles, where he was named team MVP all three seasons. He then attend his dream college – UCLA – as a walk-on.
“I always wanted to go there,” he said. “I would go to their baseball camps when I was younger. Both my parents worked so they dropped us off at camp. Gary Adams was the head coach there at that time and he would run the camps. He just made everything fun. It was close to where I lived and I would go to UCLA games as a kid. So I just kind of always wanted to go there.”
He only received eight at-bats during his freshman season – but came to the plate in a crucial post-season moment. He came to the plate in the tenth inning of Game 2 of the NCAA Super Regional against Cal State Fullerton and drew a key two-out walk to extend a UCLA rally, in an eventual 11-7 Bruins’ victory.
“I got to play defense the half-inning before, because they pinch-hit for the catcher, so I kind of had that experience before,” he recalled. “You want that opportunity and then you get it and you just try to do the best you can.”
During his sophomore year, he saw more action, playing in 23 games and making 13 starts at catcher. Despite not playing as much as he would have liked his first two seasons, he didn’t consider transferring.
“I wanted to play at UCLA,” he explained. “I didn’t play much my freshman year, and then I kind of split time my sophomore year – but I didn’t really think I was going to play professional baseball. I wanted to stay at UCLA. I liked UCLA. I met my wife there. I didn’t think about transferring. It didn’t really occur to me to do that. Then some things fell into place and I got to play my junior year. That started to fuel – like maybe I can play professional baseball, and it went on from there.”
Taking a mighty cut. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He was the team’s starting catcher his junior season – and instantly proved he belonged by beginning the season with a twelve-game hit streak.
“I was excited to be the starting catcher and wanted to stay in that role,” he remembered. “I think I was the nine-hole hitter or the eight-hole hitter the first game or maybe first two games – and then I became the number two hole hitter and stayed there the rest of the year. That kind of was my role – get guys over and get on base for the three, four, five guys. I liked it and it made it more about the team than about me.”
He ended up slashing .332/.435/.389 in 59 games and was named All-Pac-12 and a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, which is given annually to college baseball's best catcher. His success led to him being selected by the Houston Astros in the eighth round of the 2012 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft.
“I was relieved,” he said of being drafted. “Very relieved. It’s a very nerve wracking experience. A lot of people are told a lot of different things. You’re told that you’re probably going to go earlier than you usually go. Each minute between each pick feels really long, so it’s more of a relief once it finally happened.”
“I told Coach Savage and my family that if I was drafted in the top eight rounds that I probably would go play (professionally), but if I was drafted a little bit lower I was going to go back to college. I talked to my family and I talked to Coach Savage and asked his advice, and he said, ‘I think you should go play.’”
Walking in from the bullpen with Zach Thompson. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
After signing with the Astros organization, Heineman headed to Troy, New York, to play in the New York-Penn League. He slashed .358/.452/.430 in 55 games for the Tri-City Valley Cats.
“The biggest difference was playing with a wood bat instead of a metal bat,” he said. “The competition seemed like a lot of the high-level college guys went to that level. So it kind of just felt like an extension of that. But just playing every day was tiring after an already 60-something game season – then it was like here’s another 60 games in 70 days.”
Over the next few seasons, he worked his way up through the Astros minor-league system all the way to Triple-A Fresno. Then, during spring training 2016, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers.
“They kind of told me that they were potentially going to trade me, just because I’d been in Triple-A for a couple of years,” he said. “They’d signed somebody to potentially go to Triple-A with the other guy I’d been there with, Max Stassi – so they were shopping me around. So it wasn’t a total surprise. But obviously it was the first time I’d been traded. I think I’ve been traded four times in my career, so it’s a little different now. The first one’s a little weird though because you see that it doesn’t revolve around you – like you’re traded and you go to an organization and they’re still going through their thing. They don’t start when you get there. So it’s a little bit of an adjustment at first.”
In September 2019, while in the Miami Marlins organization, Heineman made his major-league debut. His first big-league hit came off Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who was in the midst of winning his second consecutive National League Cy Young Award.
“So Dunc (current Blue Jays Field Coordinator Eric Duncan) was our assistant hitting coach in the big leagues at that time,” Heineman said. “I hadn’t had an at-bat in like 20-something days and I go into the cage and he’s like, ‘DeGrom has a really good fastball, you’ve got to swing above it.’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t hit in 20-something days. Let me take a pitch.’ He said, ‘I don’t advise you to do that because he’s going to come right at you.’ I ended up taking a pitch and it was a fastball right down the middle. I was like – wow, I’m a little late, I’ve got to be on time. Then the next pitch I felt like I was on. I thought – okay, my timing’s good. Then I looked up and it was 91 mph, it was a changeup. So I thought – oh gosh, it’s battle mode. Then he threw a fastball up and away and I just got enough of it to hit it down the line. It was awesome. It’s a cool experience. Surreal for me – and to get it off of somebody of that caliber was really cool.”
The next day, Heineman made his first start in the major leagues. Once again, he’d face another fire-baller in Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler, who’s now the ace of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“He kind of carved me the first two at-bats – punch-out, foul out,” Heineman remembered. “There was a runner at third with one out in the eighth inning and the infield was in. He has a really good fastball, like deGrom kind of, and I was just trying to get above the ball. He ended up throwing a fastball kind of down and I got it out to the outfield where I wanted. I didn’t think it was going to carry that far, but it went out, so it was pretty cool.”
His first major-league home run, a two-run shot, tied the game at 2-2. The next batter, Curtis Granderson, also homered, to put the Marlins in front in a game they eventually won 4-2.
“I didn’t savor it as much as I should have,” he said of his first big-league homer. “Since then I have 175 or 180 at-bats and I don’t have another home run. So I wish I would have savored it more. But maybe there’s a few more of those in the future.”
Leading off first at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He also had the unique opportunity to face his brother, Scott Heineman, in the major leagues. The pair played against each other in college, in the minor leagues, and ultimately in the big leagues.
“He was a freshman when I was a junior,” older-brother Tyler remembered about the two facing each other in college, when Scott played at the University of Oregon. “You work out together in the offseason and you train together. You basically compete against each other, but you always want the best for your brother. Playing against him and him being a starter as a freshman was pretty cool.
“We both got drafted, played against each other in the minor leagues, which was cool, and then got to play against each other in the big leagues. I was with the Giants and he was with the Rangers during Covid. So the only unfortunate thing was that our families couldn’t be there to watch – but it was still a cool experience.”
Heineman is also well known on social media for performing card tricks for teammates. He originally became interested in magic while playing in winter ball in the Dominican Republic in 2015.
“We had a rain delay and I knew some simple tricks that my uncle had taught me,” he remembered. “I Iiked the reaction I got from the players. I was bored and I went back to the hotel room and I looked up beginner card magic and started to learn some simple tricks and showed them. I liked the reaction and it kind of grew from there.”
“It takes work to do them. The showmanship and the poise to talk about stuff and not seem nervous, and the banter in between doing the card trick to make it fun comes natural to me. The actual mechanics of it takes a lot of time and takes a lot of effort. I had a lot of bus trips and Triple-A plane flights to work on it. I used to have a deck on me and I’d just practice simple stuff.”
He had his first stint in the Blue Jays organization last season, playing in two games for the Bisons and ten with the Blue Jays, before being claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Earlier this season, Toronto reacquired him in a trade.
“I like it here,” he said of being back in the Blue Jays organization. “I enjoy it. I think the facilities are awesome – in the big leagues they’re amazing, in spring training they’re amazing. They had the big-league team (in Buffalo), so they’re great.”
“I like the transparency that they give to their players. One of my buddies is the farm director, a guy I played with, Joe Sclaffani. I played with him through the system for six years. I think he’s done a great job with the farm system. He’s doing stuff that other farm directors in the past might have kept close to the chest. He kind of lets the player know what’s on his mind. I think players really like transparency and they can respect transparency, even if it’s something that they don’t like to hear. I respect that about the Blue Jays.”
Heineman played in 36 games for the Bisons this season. Last week, he was called back up to the Blue Jays. He’s slashed .276/.458/.333 in 13 games for Toronto so far this season, as his baseball odyssey that began in Southern California and crisscrossed North America once again continues in the big leagues.