Please welcome Reuben Poling (née Lies and Perfidy) to the stable of McCovey Chronicles contributors! He will write whenever he danged well feels like it, and hopefully I won't have to bury him in the backyard with J.T., Chris, and Conner.
It’s not news to any of us that the Giants have been getting contributions from weird places. Luminaries from all over the baseball intelligentsia have pointed out that, hey, we didn’t expect any of these infielders to be very good, but instead they’re all very good! Thanks to this, the Giants are approaching the deadline as contenders despite an obviously-injured starting center fielder, an extra-fungible back-of-the-bullpen, and a starting rotation that the poets will memorialize as "Bumgarner and Heston and get some rest in."
About that rotation: as impressive as some of the Giants’ other young players have been, it’s possible that nobody has been more important to this team’s continued refusal to die than Chris Heston. Buster Posey's been the best player, and Matt Duffy's been the biggest surprise, but Heston's particular intersection of "good this season" and "better than we expected him to be" is a bigger boon to the Giants than anyone else’s.
To prove this, I will posit a few terrifying alternate universes, in which key players are playing within our pre-season expectations for them. This only works for one guy at a time, though. If Duffy and Joe Panik were both hitting to their preseason ZiPS projections...well, let’s not gaze into that abyss just yet, lest it gaze back.
Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt, and Madison Bumgarner are all good, and that's not a surprise to anyone. They are excused from this exercise. Pence can play Hearthstone, and the other three can awkwardly watch over his shoulder and pretend they know what’s going on.
The good relievers are also excused from this exercise. There's a limit to how much damage a single bad pitcher can do to a bullpen, and if the Giants have one thing in the farm, it's interesting relief arms. If George Kontos was cashing in inherited runners, or Hunter Strickland screaming at the ghost of Bryce Harper, the Giants would call someone else up.
Nori Aoki and Gregor Blanco are both playing a bit better than expected. If Blanco was playing like an acceptable fourth outfielder instead of a key starter, then hey, his playing time would match his contribution! And if Aoki was scuffling, then Blanco would get some of his playing time. Both of them have helped the Giants immensely, but neither would sink them.
So really, the candidates are the young infielders and Heston. What if Brandon Crawford had regressed this year? Well, the lineup would look a lot less intimidating; concurrently, he’d probably see the bench more often, and the overall defense would suffer. But Crawford's been doing this for a few years now; even if this is a half-season, lefty-mashing mirage, he's still a useful starter as a just-below-average hitter. His floor's reasonably high. Unless Crawford completely got the yips or something, the Giants would manage.
Panik and Duffy, though...whew. Let's visit Panik's alternate universe first, where he's a scrappy utility guy, Ryan Theriot with better fashion sense. We've seen second base for the last few years; we know the depths to which the Giants are capable of sinking.
It could get ugly. Without his steady presence, the lineup would suffer, and Crawford would have had to teach a whole new guy all those cool glove-flip moves. But that’s just one spot in the lineup, and there’s non-dire keystone options on the market. Ben Zobrist! Daniel Murphy! Chase, oh dear, I think the abyss got him. The Giants could cobble something together, is my point. They’d hurt, but they’d push on.
No, the biggest challenge to my thesis: imagine a team without Matt Duffy, Starting 3B. Imagine Duffy hitting like you’d expect from a 72nd-round pick who slugged .018 in college. [Note: check these numbers]. Imagine that the Giants are still trying to wring something out of Casey, oh no, stop imagining it, stop, just breathe, come on, let me get you to the tent until this passes.
Yeah, it’d be pretty dire. Third base was the lineup’s biggest question mark at the start of the season, and nobody expected Duffy to change it into an exclamation point. If he was hitting his ZiPS-projected .248/.307/.333, and playing third like a guy at a bachelor party who’s never gone paintballing before...he might still be better than McGehee was by the end. We’d probably have seen another five or six double plays, and a good bit more Joaquin Arias. The trade market's not as promising as it is for second base, either.
In this alternate universe, the Giants have a gaping hole in the lineup and a malfunctioning combination harvester at the hot corner. They’ve dropped a few games. Significantly less people care about Skeeter the Cat-Whale. But there’s a chance of a Giants-Juan Uribe reunion. You should take that into account when you’re universe-hopping. I know I always do.
The Giants would be in trouble without Matt Duffy.
...but not as much as they’d be in without Chris Heston.
Seriously, remember when Heston was called up? He was the guy who was DFA’d to make space for a June 2010 punchline made manifest. He was a warm body with a functioning fastball. He was basically Mike Kickham, who was basically Eric Surkamp, who was basically Joe Martinez. If he’d kept the disaster starts at bay, mixed five-and-dives with two or three solid bafflings of bad teams, we’d all be pretty okay with that. Instead, he's been dependably good to great.
Now imagine the last two months with a replacement-level Heston. More innings for a spotty bullpen. Yusmeiro Petit, bereft of pixie dust, pressed into service as a spot starter. Either Vogelsong or Hudson as your de facto #2. Bobby Evans texting Peavy & Cain every fourth day going Hey guys, just checking in on those arms, how you feeling, no pressure.
Chris Stratton might be in the majors. Or Ty Blach. More likely, the Giants have already traded for a starter, and not an exciting starter. A Dillon Gee or J.A. Happ; a pitcher who could bolster the Giants rotation by being an acceptable fourth starter instead of the marginal fifth starter Heston was likely to be. Susac, Adalberto Mejia, and Kelby Tomlinson for Mike Leake? Evans is sweating that one, and when he pulls the trigger, the Reds respond "Ooh, did that say Mejia? We meant Mella! This is going on Damn You Autocorrect, lol."
It’s not a good scene. Relievers flaming out all over the place, tumbling around on fire like a Mario Kart wreck. Wailing and gnashing of teeth every time the Giants drop a Bumgarner start. He threw five innings last time out, you know. That can’t happen in a Heston-free universe.
In every other one of these scenarios, the Giants are a worse team than they are right now. But they’re still deadline buyers, albeit high-spending buyers in the Duffy or Panik scenarios. In this scenario? The Giants could scrape out the farm system like a cantaloupe for Hamels or Cueto, and they’re still building the rest of the rotation out of silly putty and hoping everyone reads the 2012 scouting reports. Even if they’re still only two and a half games back in this alternate universe, it’s probably not worth it.
(They are not 2.5 games back in this alternate universe.)
Chris Heston isn’t the most surprising good player on the Giants, or the best surprise player on the Giants. But he’s the most important. Keep being good, Chris Heston. It turns out we’re all counting on you.