Mariners solidify rotation with a pitcher you (probably?) haven’t heard of

The Mariners went via the trade route just like we all knew they would. Albeit a much more low profile acquisition than many thought, Chris Heston is a nice find. Heston was had for a player-to-be-named-later. This continues the Mariners’ recent trend of acquiring pitchers who are either groundball pitchers, good K/BB pitchers, or have high spin rates. (Depending on the pitch, it is very advantageous to have a high spin rate. With pitches like cutters/sinkers and changeups, a high spin rate is bad). 

Right away, John Sickels compared the likes of Chris Heston to Matt Shoemaker. After a solid spring, Sickels projected that Heston would have a Matt Shoemaker-esque coming out season. While that didn’t exactly happen, Heston did have a very solid season which was highlighted by two complete games, one being a no-hit performance. His rookie season Heston went 12-11 with a 3.95 ERA (3.98 xFIP; 4.07 SIERA). Additionally, he owned a passable 7.14 K/9, 3.24 BB/9, and a HR/9 of 0.81. (Just for fun, Heston’s 2015 HR/9 is 1.00 less than Taijuan Walker’s 2016 HR/9. Boy oh boy was Walker terrible.)

The big difference between the two is Chris Heston is an extreme groundball pitcher while Shoemaker is surely not. And as Sickels notes, Shoemaker’s beard is far superior.

While Heston owns a healthy line drive rate, he owns a GB% (56.2%) that is about 12% above league average and among the highest in the MLB. His FB% (26.3%) is nearly 10% below league average, while managing to keep his HR/FB rate better than league average – that’s important. His batted ball profile is strikingly similar to Martin Perez, Kendall Graveman, Mike Leake, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and Chad Bettis. Oh, and not to mention Noah Syndergaard and Jake Arrieta. Unlike the latter two, Heston does not throw hard and will never reach that type of level of domination. Heston owns the highest GB/FB rate, and is tied for best in GB%. Similarly, Heston’s career GB% ranks second in the MLB in pitchers’ 2015-2016 GB%.

batted-balls

Brooks Baseball’s amazingly convenient beta feature offers this description of Chris Heston’s 2016 pitches compared to other RHP as follows:

His sinker is so slow that it is substantially gravitational and is an extreme flyball pitch compared to other pitchers’ sinkers. His fourseam fastball comes in below hitting speed and has heavy sinking action. His slider comes in below hitting speed, generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ sliders, sweeps across the zone and is an extreme flyball pitch compared to other pitchers’ sliders. His curve comes in below hitting speed, generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ curves, has little depth, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ curves and has slight glove-side movement. His change (take this with a grain of salt because he’s only thrown 8 of them in 2016) has below average velo, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ changeups, results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ changeups, has slight cut action and has some natural sink to it.

The TL;DR/summary:

  • His fastball sits at or below 90 but has a great amount of movement/heavy sink.
  • His slider generates A LOT of swings and misses, but it is an extreme flyball pitch.
  • His curve also generates a lot of swings and misses, but it is less so of a flyball pitch.
  • He rarely threw his changeup.

Heston is a innings-eating command pitcher who embodies Dipoto’s philosophy of controlling the strike zone. Because of his approach, he relies heavily on his defense since he does not generate strikeouts and has walked more batters than expected thus far. Right now he is a solid fourth or fifth pitcher in a rotation, but he has the potential to be more than that. Kind of similar to what we felt about Nathan Karns before last season, although… don’t let that scare you.

At AT&T Park, Heston had one of the most pitcher friendly stadiums in the MLB (second to Safeco Field). Now that Safeco has moved in their fences, it may be less pitcher friendly, especially to flyball pitchers. Not a problem for Heston.

With the Mariners’ increasingly rapid shift towards prioritizing defense, Heston stands to gain more benefit than any other M’s pitcher. With Martin patrolling center and Gamel and Haniger likely to see a lot of time in the corners, the outfield defense has improved by leaps and bounds in just a couple months. Seth Smith also looks to be on his way out of town due to his penchant for literally only being able to hit right-handed pitching. Seager and Cano are coming off of very good defensive seasons, and Segura looks to solidify a shortstop position that has struggled to be occupied by a player who can hit or field. The last player was the defensive-savvy Brendan Ryan. Just as important, Seattle has one of the MLB’s premier pitch framers in Mike Zunino and theoretically a better backup in Carlos Ruiz than Chris Iannetta turned out to be.

Heston bolsters a rotation that also features Felix, Kuma, Paxton, and one of Nathan Karns, Rob Whalen, Ariel Miranda, or a player-to-be-acquired in the coming days (or weeks). While I think this is a rather savvy pickup by the Mariners’ front office, the Mariners should try to add on to the competition for the 5th starting spot, as well as continuing to build depth.

Not only is this a low-risk move, but the Mariners also saved the $10M-$12M they would have had to pay a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation free agent.

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