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Chris Heston is working on … something

A mechanical issue is the focus for Chris Heston this spring.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago Cubs at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often that a pitcher with a no hitter under his belt finds himself at a career crossroads just a few years later. That’s exactly where Chris Heston finds himself. After a breakout season in 2015, he fell apart just a year later, struggling with injuries and his mechanics. Trading for him this offseason flew under the radar for many, partially due to the ridiculous amount of depth Jerry Dipoto added to the organization. His prior success makes him an intriguing option for the Mariners, but he’s got some work to do before he can be counted on.

Back in 2015, Heston was cruising through the first four months of the season with a 3.14 ERA backed by a 3.25 FIP. To that point, he had thrown 126 innings and was coming close to setting a new career high in innings pitched. During the last two months of the season, his ERA and FIP ballooned to 5.92 and 5.88, respectively. He lost some velocity off his sinker and lost command of his pitches. Just take a look at this table comparing his sinker velocity with some of his results in 2015:

Month FT Velocity BB% ERA FIP
Month FT Velocity BB% ERA FIP
April 90.5 5.6% 2.77 3.43
May 90.3 5.9% 4.58 3.47
June 90.5 6.5% 3.56 3.17
July 90.1 9.7% 1.57 4.10
August 89.4 11.9% 5.79 5.87
September 88.8 12.3% 6.04 4.28

In 2016, he opened the season in the bullpen and made four appearances in April. His average sinker velocity during those four relief appearances was just 87 mph. He was demoted to the minors quickly and injured his oblique later in the season. His struggles at the end of 2015 were likely fatigue related which could have affected his mechanics into the next season. The injury certainly didn’t help either.

A week ago, Chris Heston made his second Cactus League start against the Chicago Cubs. After throwing three scoreless innings, he was interviewed during the broadcast where he talked about some of the things he’s working on this spring. You can listen to the most important part of the interview in the video below:

Heston talks about a mechanical issue he’s working on this spring; keeping his weight back to help him drive his sinker down in the zone. I’ve focused on his sinker so much because it’s really the key to his success. Heston throws his sinker almost 60% of the time, and with velocity that averages 90 mph and tops out around 92, his margin for error is pretty slim. His sinker does have an impressive amount of drop to it—the vertical movement he generates sits in the 95th percentile of all sinkers thrown in the PITCHf/x era. (He also generates a huge amount of horizontal movement with the pitch too; 80th percentile in the same sample.) But if he isn’t able to locate the pitch, he can get smacked around.

Here’s a gif of Heston throwing a sinker from his spring training start a few days ago, just to get an idea of what his mechanics look like:

Because of his height and mechanics, his windup is pretty deliberate before unleashing the pitch. In the interview above, he talks about an issue where he’s too quick with his motion. I went back to watch some video from his appearances in 2016 to try and discern if the mechanical issue was apparent back then. When he missed the zone with his sinker, it was usually down and away from right-handed batters—his weight was pulling his pitches toward that quadrant and he was missing his spots.

Below is a heatmap of his sinker location throughout his career:

Ideally, you’d like to see this pitch clustered lower in the zone. But even when looking at his heatmaps from the first half of 2015, he wasn’t exactly getting his sinker lower. So even when things are going right, he’s still leaving too many pitches up in the zone. With the amount of sink he gets on the pitch, that isn’t too much of a problem if he’s generating groundballs. But the risk of pitching in the zone is apparent in that gif above—Justin Turner turns on that first pitch sinker and launches it deep into left field.

The other concern from 2016—his drop in velocity—has been mostly alleviated this spring. He’s averaged 89.8 mph on his sinker this spring and has topped out at 92. His first three appearances this spring went as well as he’d want—seven scoreless innings, four strikeouts, and no walks. His last appearance on Wednesday was a bit of a hiccup, 2 1/3 innings with three walks and no strikeouts. Still, his groundball-to-fly ball ratio is over three and his velocity is back where you want to see it.

With a repertoire that requires everything to be working in sync, Heston’s margin for success is razor thin. We’ve seen what he’s capable of when everything is going right for him. It’s encouraging to hear him recognize the mechanical problems he’s faced in the past and the progress he’s made this spring to correct those issues. Now he needs to put it all together so he’s ready to step into the rotation whenever the Mariners call on him.