If you knew who Chris Heston was before the start of the 2015 season, you were probably a member of his family, maybe an old teammate of his at East Carolina or perhaps an obsessive-compulsive fantasy league owner who studies all 900 player write-ups in the "Baseball America Prospect Handbook."
The first no-hitter of 2015 wasn't thrown by one of these pitchers racking up double-digit strikeouts every time out like Chris Sale or Corey Kluber or Chris Archer, but an obscure 27-year-old rookie pitcher for the San Francisco Giants -- a pitcher in the rotation primarily because Jake Peavy and Matt Cain are on the disabled list. Before the season, Baseball America rated Heston the 25th-best prospect in the Giants' organization, mentioning that he had a solid season in 2014 at Triple-A Fresno as a "crafty right-hander who succeeds without any pitch that grades out as even average. ... It's unlikely Heston can find big league success by letting big league hitters put pitch after pitch into play, but he will serve as reliable emergency starter option."
He has been better than an emergency option and, for at least one night, he was the best pitcher on the planet. Heston may not have a dominant weapon but he does have a sinker with good movement, and on this night he was moving it to both sides of the plate, mixing in a slow curveball to keep the New York Mets hitters off balance in a 5-0 gem. He struck out 11, and while he certainly received some help from a wide strike zone, his ability to keep the Mets guessing was most evident in the bottom of the ninth when he struck out the side -- all looking.
Heston hit Anthony Recker leading off the inning with a first-pitch sinker that rode inside, Heston's third hit batter of the game, the only blemish in his stat line as he didn't walk anyone. Heston then threw a first-pitch slow curve to Danny Muno, a big breaker that seemed to settle the pitcher down. Muno took an 0-2 curve that wrapped around the plate. Curtis Granderson missed the one hittable pitch in the frame, a 2-1 sinker down the middle that he fouled. Heston then pumped up the next pitch to 91 mph, a strike at the knees that Granderson looked at.
It came down to Ruben Tejada. Curveball outside. Sinker chopped foul. Curve way outside in the dirt. A 91-mph sinker a couple inches off the plate, called a strike (thank you, Rob Drake). The 2-2 pitch was a sinker up in the zone but on the corner. Tejada, maybe looking for an offspeed pitch, looked at it and walked away and Heston had the Giants' fourth no-hitter in as many seasons and 17th in franchise history. The Mets were no-hit for the first time since Darryl Kile did it in 1993.
Most K in a no-hitter, Giants History Matt Cain 14 Tim Lincecum 13 Chris Heston 11 Jonathan Sanchez 11 http://t.co/JKbAQR0WEF— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 10, 2015
"I did get a Buster hug," said Chris Heston, who threw a no-hitter in the big leagues. "I'll remember that one forever, that's for sure."— Brian Murphy (@knbrmurph) June 10, 2015
No-hitter for Giants rookie Chris Heston against the Mets. His sinker was brilliant. His curveball was deadly. His strike zone was enormous.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 10, 2015
So, about that strike zone. I'd suspect a lot of no-hitters come with the help of a generous strike zone. Heston had 28 called strikes in the game; according to ESPN Stats & Information data, 78 percent of those strikes were actually in the zone, meaning six were outside the zone. That's actually not much below the typical major league average, in which 81 percent of called strikes are actually in the strike zone. So you can say Heston had help, but that's not the reason he pitched a no-hitter. He pitched a no-hitter because he was good.
He's now 6-4 with a 3.77 ERA in 12 starts this season. His previous career high was 10 and he hadn't struck out more than six in any other start. But his overall strikeout rate now is pretty solid. He has 66 in 74 innings and his strikeout percentage of 21.4 percent is tied for 39th best in the majors out of 109 qualified starters -- the same rate as David Price and a higher rate than Yordano Ventura, Garrett Richards or Shelby Miller. He has combined that with the eighth-best ground ball rate among starters. In other words: With the way he has pitched so far, there's no reason he can't continue doing this.
Not bad for a guy without an average pitch.
Pitchers of Heston's profile are the ones most often underrated, but a good sinker -- even one that usually sits 88-90 mph -- can be a great weapon. His Giants teammate Tim Hudson has succeeded for years now without an overpowering fastball, getting a lot of grounders with his two-seamer. Astros ace Dallas Keuchel has shown you can dominant without a ton of strikeouts if you throw a good sinker that induces weaker contact and ground balls. Other than 2013, when he struggled in his first year in Triple-A, Heston always had solid minor league numbers.
I think it's pretty clear the Giants have more than an emergency starter on their hands. Heston looks like a guy who is going to remain in the rotation, and if and when Cain and Peavy get healthy, it's going to be one of the veterans -- Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum or Hudson -- who first gets bumped.