Dumpster Diving: Chris Heston’s Early Season Success

Two starts does not a season make, but Chris Heston is quickly making a positive impression. He’s a pitcher who shouldn’t have been on the radar of gamers entering the year, however, it might be time to re-evaluate the 27-year old right-hander. The Giants prefer keep Yusmeiro Petit in a swingman role, and Heston has bypassed Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation pecking order. Matt Cain remains a little less than week away from playing catch, according to Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area. In other words, Heston has at least a few more turns in the rotation before the Giants could have to make some decisions regarding who the five pitchers are in the Giants rotation.

Any pitcher who calls AT&T Park home will benefit from pitching in the most pitcher-friendly ballpark during the 2014 season. Go ahead and put a check mark in the pros column for Heston. At the least, he’s an intriguing deep mixed or NL-only league home stream option. He might be slightly more valuable than that, though.

Heston was essentially a fringe prospect who the Giants actually designated for assignment at the end of July, 2013. As a right-handed pitcher who lacked top-shelf velocity or exciting secondary pitches, it was an understandable move. Heston was able to succeed in the upper minors despite lacking overpowering stuff. He relied on location and keeping the ball on the ground at a high rate with his sinker. Last year, he made 28 starts in the treacherous Triple-A Pacific Coast League and managed a 3.38 ERA that wasn’t supported by his 4.50 FIP. Those numbers alone would be reason to cast a skeptical glance at his production thus far this year, but digging a little deeper reveals he could be a useful large mixed or NL-only league pitcher.

Stories of players coming into camp in the best shape or their life have become the norm and a running joke in baseball circles. Heston reportedly bulked up, though, and usually bulking up is associated with an attempt to add velocity or avoid wearing down from a heavy workload. After two strong turns for the Giants, I was curious what his PITCHf/x data looked like. It’s, well, baffling.

Brooks Baseball captured some spring training data, and Heston averaged 94.03 mph on 11 sinkers in an appearance March 14, and averaged 93.13 mph on 30 sinkers thrown March 22. His velocity dipped to 91.75 mph in his first regular season start against the Diamondbacks March 8. Having said that, the sinker was humming nearly a full two ticks faster than it did in his lone start in 2014 at the end of September against the Padres (89.82 mph). Even more interesting, it appears the guns are a bit cold at Chase Field to begin the year. This is where things get baffling.

Heston’s sinker velo dropped yet again in his second start averaging 90.67 mph at home. Strange, because AT&T Park’s guns appear to be running a bit hot, according to Brooks Baseball. As the stadium gun page for Brooks Baseball notes, the info isn’t nearly as precise at the beginning of the season — almost certainly due to small sample size issues. Still, the combination of throwing harder at a ballpark with a hot gun and slower at a ballpark with a cold gun is perplexing. The takeaway is that it’s worth monitoring Heston’s velocity in his upcoming starts.

With a groundball rate of 61.1% through two starts, Heston is coaxing worm burners at a Dallas Keuchel like rate. He’s also filling up the strike zone with just a 7.8% BB, which lines up favorably with his work in the minors. If Heston’s velocity gains prove to be real, retaining his strikeout rate of 19.6% isn’t out of the question. Yes, that is below the league average, but it’s acceptable when considering his exceptional groundball rate and solid walk rate. Given the cloud of uncertainty hanging over Cain’s head in regard to his return from a strained flexor tendon and the high injury rate of pitchers in general, Heston could be in store for a full season’s worth of work starting for the Giants. Entering the year that wouldn’t have meant much to fantasy gamers, but now it could mean a valuable addition to pitcher-needy squads in deep leagues.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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By “Dallas Kuechel like rate”, if we’re talking since April 2014, that’s dang good.

I believe they call these types “standard sinkerball pitchers” – a category that, depending on whether one maintains arm and general health, demonstrates consistent discipline in pitch selection, and is able to summons up location control year after year over 20 or more starts per season, can actually get one up into Tim Hudson territory (even *gasp* Greg Maddux! but more likely Tommie John, IF GOOD).

Problem is, health is only partly controllable, and location control a measurable talent which, well, we’ll have to watch Heston as time goes on. Otherwise, it coms down to boring old no-drama discipline.

I’ve watched all 3 Heston starts this season. In all 3, he’s confronted some crisis from mild to potentially quite serious. The one on Saturday IMO illustrates the challenge he’ll be facing most often.

Top of Inning 2, Dbacks got a hit, then another, so Heston found himself to forced to keep pitching out of the stretch. The batters that followed set out to force more throws out of Heston – as MLB batters should, particularly in early innings. Heston began throwing across his body, again and again, whipping slip’n’sliders way outside, rather than snapping the sinker down from the top. One of those next batters walked, which loaded the bases, tho 2 out. In those circumstances and that situation, effectively Heston had lost his sinker, at least for the balance of that half inning.

And then Chris woke up and turned out it was all a bad dream … actually, what happened was the D’backs pitcher came up to bat, and since just about any MLB pitcher can take out just about any opposing MLB pitcher at bat with just about anything, Heston’s bacon was saved.

If that same scenario were to have occurred in Inning 5 – bases loaded, batting side one run down – it’s more likely the pitcher would be PH for, and Heston’s survival rate reduced significantly (‘Observe how the lions close in on the motherless wildebeest faun’.). If it happens in an earlier inning but the crisis emerges just as the top of the opponent’s batting order comes charging over the hill like the U.S. cavalry in John Ford flick, Heston is materially less likely to survive. If 2 of his 3 starts so far were not against the D’backs – whose offense appears to consist of i) hoping everyone on the opposing team had strokes that made them forget Paul Goldschmidt is among the most dangerous hitters in the world today and thus it is professional negligence to try to pitch to him as if he’s some ‘ordinary’ MLB hitter, followed by ii) a string of 8 consecutive rosaries lasting until Goldschmidt’s next scheduled plate appearance – Heston would now be less likely the owner of a positive WL record … and also wouldn’t justify this attention.

In 2013 the Giants dropped Heston from their 40-man roster to accommodate incoming OF Jeff Francoeur. Silly as that sounds (then as now), consider Francoeur is still playing in MLB games, abeit with the Phillies. As much as a fan may wish to admire Brian Sabean, there’s a lot of horseshit luck in staffing MLB franchises.

Heston’s about the same age & height as Keuchel, seems less husky but Keuchel’s got a longer trunk so they’re probably close to the same mass. They throw at similar velocities that are probably ‘fast enough’ to sustain success.