The Plays Behind Chris Heston

There’s a belief that, when a guy throws a no-hitter, that means that somewhere along the line a defensive player made a hell of a play to keep it alive. There are certain famous examples that prop the theory up, and without doubt, there are easier plays made, and more difficult plays made, every single time. One of the interesting things about Chris Heston’s no-hitter is that no defensive plays really stand out. Granted, because of the strikeouts, there were just 15 balls put into play, but all of those turned into 16 outs, and no one had to make an all-out dive. It was, in retrospect, an easy-seeming no-hitter, if that’s not an oxymoron. (It is, but, anyway.)

Heston’s not the best pitcher to ever throw a no-hitter. Nor is he the worst. In fact, we don’t yet really know what Heston is, because his big-league career is barely underway. All we know for sure is he’s something of a groundball machine. There are only so many ways to analyze a game like this, such that you’re in any way original, but then there is that new Statcast wrinkle. We’ve got some Statcast information for all of Heston’s balls in play allowed. That’s potentially useful.

I decided to try to estimate hit probabilities, for the 15 balls in play. Obviously, Heston allowed zero hits, but what could be expected from his distribution, on an average day with an average defense? We’re given all the necessary exit velocities. We have the batted-ball types, and we know the handedness of the hitters. I had to manually estimate batted-ball angle, but Baseball Savant was a big help. For each ball in play, I looked up previous balls in play with similar angles, velocities, and trajectories. Results are in the table, showing 2015 data.

These are approximations. Estimates. The samples are limited, and every defense is different and every hitter is different. I couldn’t be too picky about runners on or bases empty, because I didn’t want the samples to dwindle even further. Nevertheless, here’s what I wound up with. We’ll quickly review the plays with the highest hit probabilities.

Play Inning Average
Tejada grounds out 7 0.706
Flores grounds out 8 0.583
Duda grounds out 7 0.500
Campbell grounds out 8 0.459
Recker grounds out 3 0.200
Lagares grounds out 5 0.194
Recker grounds out 6 0.170
Cuddyer grounds into double play 4 0.118
Lagares grounds out 8 0.091
Flores grounds out 5 0.083
Lagares grounds out 2 0.081
Granderson grounds out 6 0.061
Tejada grounds out 1 0.043
Flores flies out 2 0.026
Cuddyer flies out 7 0.000

For the most part, you see a pretty easy game. Out of 15 balls in play, seven had a rough hit probability below 10%. Another four came between 10 – 20%. Overall, given these numbers, you might’ve expected Heston to allow 3 – 4 hits. Not a single ball in play was hit 100 miles per hour. He did avoid solid contact, and he kept almost everything on the ground. Against that lineup, Heston had everything working in his favor.

What you see in the table are four plays with pretty high chances of turning into hits. What happened on those, such that the Giants got outs all four times? Time to look at the seventh and eighth innings.

Tejada grounds out


Ruben Tejada led off the seventh with a reasonably sharp opposite-field grounder. Over a small sample, these sorts of grounders by righties have gone for hits about 70% of the time. What we see, though, is that Brandon Belt made the play easily. How to make sense of this? It’s positioning. Belt started the play pulled toward second base. If Belt were a few steps closer to first, that ball would’ve found the hole with Heston still nine outs away. With the bases empty, the hit probability is presumably a bit lower than 70%, since the first baseman doesn’t have to hold anyone on, but you usually won’t see a first baseman aggressively shifted like that. Heston pitched into it.

Flores grounds out


Guess what! It’s almost the same play. Similar grounder, similar situation, similar spot. Only difference here is Belt let Heston do the stepping on the bag. So that’s twice, in the late innings, the Giants were rewarded for shifting Belt aggressively with a righty at the plate. Don’t interpret this as Heston getting lucky. Just understand that no-hitters tend to be team efforts.

Duda grounds out


It’s weird to think of this as having a high hit probability, because Brandon Crawford’s play couldn’t have been more routine. It’s because the Giants over-shifted Lucas Duda, and Duda hit right into it. Now, Duda is no stranger to aggressive shifts. The actual hit probability here was quite a bit lower, given the Giants’ alignment. But, let’s say they hadn’t have shifted quite so aggressively. This could’ve happened:


The Giants had Crawford in the right spot. It probably wasn’t hard for them to make that call. Still, they chose the correct shift.

Campbell grounds out


If there’s a defensive play that’ll be remembered, it’s probably this one, with Brandon Crawford throwing out Eric Campbell to close out the eighth. Campbell pulled the ball to Crawford’s right, at 98 miles per hour, but Crawford made a sweet backhand and then had enough time to launch an on-the-mark rocket to first. Grounders like this have gone for hits almost half the time, and this time, you can see it. But ultimately, Crawford was positioned well, again. He didn’t have to take that many steps. He was all but assured of being in contact with the ball, so at worst, he might’ve wound up charged with an error. He elected not to make an error.

And in part because of that, Chris Heston made his unexpected sort of history. Every perfect game or no-hitter requires cooperation from the pitcher, the hitters, and the defense. The Mets’ hitters played along. The Giants’ defense did what it needed to do, armed with smart positioning. And Heston legitimately pitched what might well end up being the game of his life. Every pitcher needs help. Heston didn’t need much.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Stats and the major-league-infielder eyeball test seem to agree pretty well here — Belt’s positioning on the Tejada 7th-inning grounder drew heavy praise from Keith Hernandez in the SNY booth.