WTNYAugust 06, 2004
No Debate
By Bryan Smith

Felix Hernandez is the best pitching prospect in baseball.

I offer this statement with little doubt; teenagers like this dont come often. Seattle signed the 18-year-old right-hander out of Venezuela, and since the move has paid greater dividends than they could have ever imagined. Hernandez has flown through four levels, stopping just long enough to dominate at each one before moving on. His start came in the Northwest League, where few people could believe his fastball came from the arm of a seventeen-year-old.

After finishing the year in the Midwest League, the Mariners courageously started their blossoming prospect in the California League. While expected to give him challenges, Hernandez yawned through the league, posting a 2.74 ERA in sixteen appearances. This led King Felix, as the boys at U.S.S. Mariner call him, to become the youngest player in the Texas League. Hernandez took a small break from professional ball in July to play in the Futures Game, an exhibition of the games best, when Hernandez showed intrigue like no one else. In fact, here was my report after watching the game:


There was nothing nearly as exciting as watching Felix Hernandez, my top ranked pitching prospect, as he pitched to hitters nearly six years older than him. The 18-year-old seemed to have a strut walking around the mound, showing extreme confidence despite having to face Prince Fielder and David Wright to lead off the inning. Felix led off the inning with a two mid-90s fastballs, though the Milwaukee first basemen took the second one the other way for a single. Hernandez than went to a 82-84 mph, jaw-dropping curveball on three of the next four pitches, eliminating David Wright in quick order. Koyie Hill led off his at-bat taking a Hernandez fastball to second, where Ruben Gotay and Joel Guzman turned an impressive 4-6-3 double play.

Armed with a high-90s fastball and mid-80s power curve, Felix shows uncanny poise while on the mound. His only bad start came in his fourth Texas League appearance, when the Frisco Roughriders roughed up the teenager for six runs in only 2.2 innings. Subtract that, and Hernandez has a season ERA of 2.64, compared to 3.03 with the start added. To see how Felix has arrived at that season ERA, I thought it would be beneficial to give his month-by-month statistics:
 
Mon. IP ERA H/9 K/9 W/9
April 20.2 3.48 7.84 11.76 3.05
May 33 3.00 8.73 9.27 2.45
June 38.1 2.11 8.22 12.44 2.35
July 26.2 4.05 8.44 8.10 3.71

Remember that Hernandez spent July in the Texas League, which should temper your opinions of the month. As the stats show, King Felix was dominant in June, allowing three runs in his final four starts, which spanned 27.1 innings, 38 strikeouts and only four walks. None of the eight home runs he has allowed came in June, though I should say three of his eight allowed homers have come against Diamondbacks prospects: Carlos Quentin on 4/21, Jamie DAntona on 5/11, and Jesus Cota on 7/6.

In the latest Baseball America, Jim Callis writes a concerned article that such a young arm wont be able to handle the stress of the 2004 season. Always a worry, Callis points to Doc Gooden, who avoided arm injuries until age 24, when he had already become the backbone of the Mets rotation. Hernandez doesnt exactly parallel Gooden, who threw 191 innings at 18, and entered the Majors with a 4.67 BB/9 ratio from the minors. In fact, here is what Goodens minor league line looked like when entering the Majors:


League IP ERA H/9 K/9 W/9
Appy 65.2 2.47 7.26 9.05 3.43
NYPL 13 4.15 7.62 12.46 2.08
Caro. 191 2.50 5.70 14.14 5.28
Total 269.2 2.57 6.17 12.82 4.67

And for quick comparisons sake, here is what Felix Hernandez has thus far:

League IP ERA H/9 K/9 W/9
NWL 55 2.29 7.04 11.95 3.93
Midw 14 1.93 5.79 11.57 1.93
Cali 92 2.74 8.32 11.15 2.54
Tex 26.2 4.05 8.44 8.10 3.71
Total 187.2 2.73 7.77 10.98 3.07

To put this into context, Hernandez would need to pitch 82 more innings to match Goodens 269.2 before turning nineteen. Furthermore, to match his peripherals, Felix would need a 2.20 ERA, 2.52 H/9 (23 allowed), 17.01 K/9 (155), and 8.34 W/9 (76). While the ERAs are seemingly close, Hernandez is more hittable, and more controlled. Though I should mention, according to a past Baseball America story, Hernandez has yet to unveil a slider in the low-90s, a pitch that would surely boost the K/9 considerably.

While I could spend time comparing Hernandez to Jeff Francis or Matt Cain, the fact is that Hernandez is clearly in front of both. He has age on the Rockie, and pitchability on the Giant. With the slider, Hernandez will have three devastating pitches, with two (fast and curve) that can be thrown for strikes at any time.

If dominant, Mariners brass admits they will not hold their prized prospect back. But Felix hasnt been great in AA, with two rocky starts in his first five. I think the 18-year-old should be shut down after a couple more starts, and definitely not allowed to participate in Winter Ball for his native Venezuela during the offseason. Felix should start next year in AA, providing a boost for Seattles rotation at about the time Zack Greinke arrived: late May.

Seattle fans should be excited, but careful not to call Hernandez the second coming of the Doc. Bill Bavasi must be careful with the King, who is not only the best pitching prospect in baseball, but the second best overall prospect in the minor leagues.

Comments

No argument on this one. He is just nasty. Considering the relative unimpressiveness of the Mariner staff, I think he has a shot to make that team out of spring training. In addition to having pitchability on Cain, Felix also has age on him too, wow. It's amazing to think that most 18-year-old pitching prospects are toiling in Rookie League or Short Season ball and he's in AA.

King Felix is back in High-A.

False alarm, there was a box score malfunction.