Long Live the King
The city of Seattle has a litany of important historical dates:
November 4, 1861: Founding of the University of Washington
To this list, we may one day add August 4th, 2005. The occasion? Felix Hernandez makes his major league debut, taking the hill in Detroit on a game that was only seen through a closed-circuit broadcoast on MLB.tv. Though the Mariners lost the game, it signaled the beginning of an era. The reign of King Felix has begun.
In the past two seasons, the Mariners have won 132 games while losing 192, a nifty .407 winning percentage. The team has spent two years losing, and doing so while being nearly unwatchable. It is one thing to lose with young players trying to earn their way to the major leagues. It is another thing entirely to lose with Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio, Pat Borders, Aaron Sele, and Ryan Franklin. Following the team on a daily basis became something of a burden. They were a bad team that was hard to watch and made up of players who were planning their post-career travels. The team's slogan, "You gotta love these guys," was eerily similar to your Mom telling you to eat your broccoli as a child. "Do I have to?" Unfortunately, there was no way to sweep Bret Boone under the table.
What's the old saying, though, it's always darkest before the dawn? Well, on August 4th, after having his every twitch in the minor leagues micro-analyzed by people grasping for hope (read: me), the dawn arrived in Seattle. We had seen the future, and the future was Venezuelan, baby-faced, and a little thick in the middle.
Five days later, Felix stepped on the mound at Safeco Field for the first time. The Minnesota Twins were the opponents, though they weren't so much a challenge as they were witnesses to the coronation. 8 innings, 5 hits, no runs, no walks, 6 strikeouts, and 14 groundballs on just 94 pitches. The Mariner offense managed just one run against the immortal Kyle Lohse and, on any other night, the crowd would have gone home railing on the team's inability to hit ball with stick. Instead, the fans watched the King take his throne.
The results were impressive. This 19-year-old was completely dominating, not just in performance, but in ability. The weapons at his disposal were numerous and debilitating. There are players whose domination is a marvel. Then, there are players whose domination is expected, because they're just playing a different game. Felix was clearly the latter.
Let's start with his four-seam fastball. At 96-98 mph, his velocity alone makes it extaordinarily hard to hit. This isn't a Matt Anderson "Hit Me" fastball. Throwing it with movement, it draws stares more often than not. It's the easiest strike one in baseball.
If he bores of peppering the zone in the high-90s, he can easily switch to his two-seam fastball, the sinker that caused worms and gophers to leave the grounds of Safeco Field en masse. This pitch is nearly always thrown at the knees and, with late downward movement, it is a groundball machine. This pitch was the key to Felix's groundball rate. He faced 328 batters in his 12 starts and induced 149 ground balls. Only 45 hitters managed to get the ball in the air. This two-seam fastball is why.
As good as his two high-velocity options can be, neither is his best pitch. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a better pitch in baseball than the Royal Curveball. Thrown as a classic 12-to-6 over-the-top curve and coming in at 82-86 miles per hour, Felix's curve is the kind of breaking ball that makes batters wobble. Starting at your eyes and ending in the dirt, trying to calculate the plane that the ball will be on as it crosses the plate is, for all practical purposes, impossible. To top things off, he has more command of his curve than any other pitch. Down 3-0, you are more likely to see the Royal Curve than you are a fastball. It's his go-to pitch, not only when he needs a strikeout, but when he just wants to get the ball over the plate. Try hitting this thing when you're sitting dead red.
And, just for fun, Felix also has a change-up that, on its own merits, is one of the best in the American League. A true straight change, he drops it in at around 84 mph, usually just below the knees of a batter who has already completed his swing by the time the ball actually gets to the plate. The famous Roger Rabbit cartoon, where three swings are completed in the time it takes for the ball to get to the catcher's mitt, isn't that far off base.
When Felix is on the hill, it isn't just surprising when someone gets a hit. It's surprising when they don't look foolish. He uses four pitches that, judged on their own merits, are among the very best in the game individually. Trying to find a comparison for a guy with Felix's repertoire of pitches just isn't possible. If you put Billy Wagner's velocity, Brandon Webb's movement, Kerry Wood's curveball, and Johan Santana's change-up in a blender, then put it on high, you would have something like what the Mariners have. Only what the Mariners have is 19-years-old.
Scouts aren't the only ones drooling over Hernandez. Let's take a look at some of the markers that get performance analysts excited, shall we?
Most people agree that strikeout rate is the best predictor of future success in a young pitcher. If you can miss bats in the major leagues before you're allowed to drink, good things are probably in store. Well, Felix Hernandez struck out 23.4 percent of the batters he faced as a Mariner. Roger Clemens has a career rate of striking out 23.2 percent of batters he has faced. Strikeout rate? Check.
Okay, so, Felix makes guys miss. But, you have to be able to get the ball over the plate, too. All the stuff in the world doesn't make a difference if the batter can stare at four pitches out of the strike zone and stroll down to first base. Felix walked just 7 percent of the batters he faced in the majors while throwing just 14.4 pitches per inning. Command? Check.
The third true outcome, home run rate, has been preliminarily tied mostly to flyball rate. The more balls in the air a pitcher allows, the more often one will likely leave the yard. Felix allows fewer fly balls than any starting pitcher in the major league besides Brandon Webb. On the season, he allowed just 5 home runs in 84 innings, projecting out to 12 or 13 for an entire season. That total would be the best in the league just about every single year. Ability to keep the ball in the yard? Check.
Then, there are just the ridiculous numbers. Opposing batters hit .203/.263/.283 against him last season. That's a little bit worse than the season line Cristian Guzman just finished putting up.
Or, there's this little gem. Felix Hernandez's average game score was 63.1. Roger Clemens was the only guy in the majors with a higher average game score. The Rocket's was 63.5.
So, we admit, after watching his continual displays of brilliance, we went nuts. When it came to Felix, I gladly put down my objective analyst card and became a screaming fanboy. No one in Seattle would have objected if he had come riding in from the bullpen on a donkey with palm trees littering the outfield. The city was starved for a hero, a leader, a king. In King Felix, we found a phenom.
Long Live the King.
David Cameron is a member of the team of writers who author ussmariner.com. He has also written for Baseball Prospectus and his newest article will be published in the upcoming Hardball Times 2006 Annual. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.