WTNYAugust 05, 2005
The King, Cavalier and Sinkerballer
By Bryan Smith

Undefined ratios are thought to be unspeakable for pitchers. The kind of outing that can send a pitcher straight down to the minors, no questions asked. Or, in the case of Felix Hernandez, they can be a sign of mound dominance.

But before he could reach that level, King Felix had to pitch his way out of a jam that could have left with the bad kind of undefined ratio...or something close to it. Instead, with the bases loaded, Felix induced Dmitri Young to ground into a double play, and then struck out Pudge Rodriguez to escape the first with just one run allowed. Because of that, and the final look of his box score, people will say that Hernandez pitched well "for a nineteen-year-old" yesterday.

Don't buy it. It's hogwash. He pitched great for any age in his Major League debut.

The National League Cy Young race will be a choice of two men at year's end, Roger Clemens and Chris Carpenter. While Clemens remains a statistical anamoly, we have seen Carpenter grow before us since arriving in St. Louis. Two weeks ago, Rich Lederer wrote, "More than anything, his success this year is attributable to career-high strikeout and groundball/flyball rates." Simply put, the pitcher who can give up the least percentage of flyball outs is best on track for good overall numbers.

Yesterday, Hernandez kept that percentage at zero. His groundball-to-flyball ratio? Undefined, with ten ground ball outs and not one ball in the air. In fact, not once yesterday did Felix allow a flyball, even one that dropped for a hit. After an antsy beginning, Hernandez calmed, and dominated the Tigers the rest of the way. An avid box score reader seeing four strikeouts won't see that, but those of us that saw weak grounder after weak grounder being caused by Felix's arsenal (a 94-97 FB and two great breaking pitches) watched it happen.

It also appears that these type of outings are sustainable, as Hernandez has also been this type of K/GB pitcher in AAA. In 88 innings, Hernandez coupled a fantastic 10.23 K/9 with a 1.67 GB/FB ratio. Those numbers are very similar to, and even better than, Matt Clement's 2004, who Rich noted held the highest groundball ratio for a strikeout pitcher last year at 1.60. At this point, a little control and an average BABIP is all Hernandez needs to become the star we have envisioned for two years.

Well, avoiding injury is pretty important too. Hernandez was delegated to the bullpen in Tacoma for five outings this year following a battle with shoulder soreness, an injury King Felix appears to be past. Still, my worries led me to Will Carroll, who said of the 19 year old's delivery, "I have some concerns about his delivery. He seems unbalanced, doesn't use his legs well, and ends by falling to first. He has an incredible arm and sometimes, you just leave things as is and hope it doesn't backfire. I'd be reluctant to change much."

Let's just hope nothing changes, from the delivery, to the stuff, to the outcome. Instead, in the words of Dave Cameron, "All Hail the King. Long Live the King."


The '2005 Draft Race to the Majors' got thrown a curveball yesterday, when this appeared in the Washington Post

The Nationals' considerable offensive slump during their month-long slide will have General Manager Jim Bowden scouring the team's farm system next week, wondering if there is any sort of solution available in the minors. One distinct possibility: First-round draft pick Ryan Zimmerman, just two months removed from his career at the University of Virginia, could be in Washington before too long.

"My preference, from my development heart, is '06," Bowden said prior to yesterday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I really don't want to do '05. But is he on my mind every hour on the hour? Yes."

However, the article also mentions that Rule 5 pick, Tony Blanco, is hitting .287 at AAA on a 'rehab' assignment. This will likely be the Nats' first choice to replace Vinny Castilla, who has struggled horrendously with a bum left knee. Is there a bigger contract-year player in baseball than Castilla, who will likely retire when his contract runs out after 2006?

As far as Zimmerman, I think the club will wait until rosters expand in September, meaning he will probably tie Joey Devine and narrowly beat out Craig Hansen in the three-handed race. Zimmerman is the best prospect of the three, if you ask me, as Bowden also said, "He's one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball -- right now." That's high praise, and shows just how high Washington is on their first-rounder who is hitting .327 with a .564 slugging in his last 101 at-bats at AA. The concern? Just eight walks since coming up to the Eastern League.

I have very high hopes for Zimmerman, and have no doubt that he would be one of my top 50 prospects (ahead of Eric Duncan and Kendry Morales...no use to speculate beyond that) if included. In Zimmerman, I see a mix between Gary Gaetti, Tim Wallach (who hit a similar .393 at a big program his last year of college) and Graig Nettles at the Major League level. Gold Gloves, a few random huge seasons, and an overall solid career. Not to mention, in Zimmerman's case...the first National true fan favorite/hero.

[Delmon Young] on White Sox righthander Sean Tracey:

"He's a competitor. He made me look like a fool the last time I faced him. He kept mixing it up in and out, changing speeds and it looked exactly the same out of his hand every time."

I'm a little late on this bandwagon, as Baseball America surprised some people by ranking Tracey so high last year. Futuresox.com wrote in their midseason system review that following Bobby Jenks' promotion, Tracey might have the best stuff in the system. The numbers don't quite support that theory, however, as the big right-hander is nowhere close to striking out one hitter an inning.

Instead, it appears that Tracey has shown his power sinker this year more than ever. He has a groundball ratio of about 1.70 this year, and has had a couple starts that would make Derek Lowe jealous. But what holds Tracey back is similar to Daniel Cabrera at the Major League level: walks. The command is not quite there yet, and while Sean has been impressive as a sinkerballer, he hasn't been particularly consistent. When looking at Tracey's season, I found this quite interesting:

Dates	  ERA	GB/FB	K/9	BB/9
4/1-5/6	  2.16	2.14	6.48	4.86
5/7-6/15   5.66	0.74	7.84	3.70
6/16-now   4.38	1.77	4.74	4.93

What this chart tells me is that Tracey's success is hardly as dependent upon his K/9 as his groundball and walk ratios. If Tracey is effectively controlling the ball -- while keeping it low in the zone -- he will succeed. When he reverts to being a flyball pitcher, trying to throw his mid 90s fastball by people, he becomes just another ordinary hard-thrower. And if days like July 31 continue, Tracey has top-of-the-rotation potential: 7 innings, 13 ground ball outs, 10 strikeouts, 3 walks.

Another sign of Tracey's inconcistency has been his occasional complete lapse of talent, resulting in some awful starts. If you take out three starts this year, in which Sean allowed 22 runs in just 9.2 innings, his ERA drops to the low-3.00s. Now I'm not quite sure it's fair to expect him to eliminate bad starts, but controlling them to a better degree will come with age.

In the end, I think there is a decent chance that Tracey will become a better pitcher than McCarthy. For that to happen, however, a lot of maturation must occur at high levels. The White Sox must continue to preach control, control, control, while simultaneously keeping the ball down in the zone. If Tracey can become a strike-thrower with the power sinker, that four seamer will appear faster and faster.


Will Carroll said he falls off to first. Wonder who's right?

Well he falls off to his left as most right handed power pitchers do, so I think he meant first base side and not third.