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August 10, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

King Felix Arrives

by Jonah Keri

To the 529,161 Seattleites who didn't make it to Felix Hernandez's major league home debut, I have just one question: What the heck were you thinking?

Naturally, your intrepid Game of the Week correspondent was there, in you-only-live-once splurge box seats, 30 rows up and just to the third-base side of home plate. Joined by Mariner fan deluxe Derek Zumsteg, we witnessed what could one day be looked back upon as a slice of history.

Gather 'round. You're now entering the Court of King Felix.


LF Shannon Stewart
2B Nick Punto
C  Joe Mauer
DH Matt LeCroy
RF Jacque Jones
CF Lew Ford
1B Justin Morneau
3B Terry Tiffee
SS Jason Bartlett

Hardly inspiring, and a lineup further weakened by the loss of Torii Hunter to injury. The Twins rank 12th in the AL in runs scored, giving Hernandez what has to be considered a highly favorable match-up for his first start ever at Safeco Field. Still, with Shannon Stewart, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau--even the diminished 2005 version--on board, it's not a complete cakewalk by any means.

Working on a strict pitch limit of 85 in his first start at Detroit last week, Hernandez gave up a run, two hits and two walks before recording an out. He settled in after that, though, yielding just two runs (one earned), three hits and two walks all told. Hernandez struck out four and allowed zero flyballs. Having fanned more than a batter an inning throughout his minor league career, with filthy groundball rates to boot, the M's felt he was ready for the bigs, never mind the fact that he was the first teenage pitcher to crack the bigs since Todd Van Poppel in 1991.

From the start, it was clear that Hernandez's stuff can hang with anyone's. His first three pitches to Stewart, leading off: 97-mph fastball taken for strike one, 98-mph fastball whiffed for strike two, 83-mph change-up drawing weak contact fouled off. On another off-speed pitch, this one a curve, Stewart tapped the ball toward Adrian Beltre at third. Gambling it would go foul, Beltre let the ball go by--after bopping the base on a hop, Stewart was aboard.

One of the subplots revolving around any young pitcher is his ability to work his way out of jams. There's a psychological element to be sure: Hernandez is nearly two years shy of legal drinking age, and he's going to face elite players like Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, night after night. But beyond that, there are the little things: Will the fastball have the same snap, the breaking ball the same bite out of the stretch as in the windup? Will he change his approach to the hitter, grooving pitches or nibbling too much to make up for yielding baserunners in the first place? With a 2-2 count on Nick Punto, Wiki Gonzalez gunned down Stewart at second, rendering the point moot. A groundout to short and strikeout (fastball 98, fastball 99, curve, fastball, fastball, change, fastball, 85-mph change, whiff) ensued, but Hernandez would face more pressure later.


RF Ichiro Suzuki
2B Willie Bloomquist
DH Raul Ibanez
1B Richie Sexson
3B Adrian Beltre
CF Jeremy Reed
SS Yuniesky Betancourt
LF Chris Snelling
C  Wiki Gonzalez

Directly behind the Twins in AL runs scored? The Mariners, who lead only last-place Kansas City in runs scored. Ichiro!'s leadoff, opposite-field double would prove the only extra-base hit, and one of only two hits period for the Mariners until the 7th. Since we've already covered the M's offensive woes and Kyle Lohse came into the game with an opposition OPS near .850, it's a little tougher to be enthused about the Twins' starter's performance. One thing that can be said: If not for the Twins' deep staff, this team would be comfortably in fourth place in the AL Central, behind only the Devil Rays and Royals for league cellar bragging rights.

Top of the 2nd, Matt LeCroy leading off. Either Hernandez is a master of game-planning, or he and Gonzalez simply have a great feel working together on which pitches to throw, how to throw them, and when. After falling behind 2-1--a rare occurrence all night--Hernandez comes back with a 96-mph fastball that draws air from LeCroy's bat. With the hitter now looking dead red, a big, sweeping curve freezes LeCroy dead in his tracks. Strike three. Jacque Jones? 97-mph fastball on the hands, popped out to short. Lew Ford? Screaming 1-2 fastball, weak groundout to short.

It's Hernandez's second big league start, he's sure to be on another strict pitch count, and we've just completed the 2nd inning. I'm already cursing Beltre for letting that leadoff nubber by Stewart go by for a hit--it's hard to imagine anyone getting any more.

After one of the four innings in which the Mariners send the minimum three batters to the plate, the Twins come back in the top of the 3rd for more punishment. Morneau takes a 95-mph fastball for strike one. A hard curve leaves him with his bat on his shoulder for strike two. Unable to pull Hernandez's heat--I counted three balls that were hit hard and pulled off Hernandez all night, fair or foul--Morneau flies out to left for the first out. Terry Tiffee and Jason Bartlett both ground out, the final pitch to Bartlett leaving us wondering what Hernandez was throwing. Known as a fastball-curve-change pitcher, he's occasionally mixing in a mid-80s pitch that falls off the table. It looks like either a slow splitter--unlikely, given the Mariners' tight leash on Hernandez throwing new or trick pitches--or a change of Pedro Martinez/Johan Santana proportions. Having seen thousands upon thousands of pitchers in person over the years, it's great to see one who throws a pitch that makes you say 'What the heck was that?!'

(This seems like as good a place as any to point you to some cool photos taken by Mariner fan Erik Myhre last night. There are some great zoom shots of Hernandez's pitching motion, as well as a montage of his strike/ball totals during the game and other fun tidbits. You can check it out by clicking here.)

4th inning: Stewart grounds out to third. Punto goes around on an 0-2 check-swing, but Hernandez doesn't get the call. Doesn't matter--he strikes him out on a change the very next pitch. Mauer lines out to center. Through four, Hernandez has thrown just 52 pitches, 37 for strikes. Just two balls have left the infield. The punchless M's have done nothing too, though, making it a scoreless tie heading to the 5th.

Finally, a true test. LeCroy starts the 5th with a solid first-pitch single over third. The Safeco crowd isn't as rabid as you'll find in some other stadiums, with plenty of casual fans who may be vaguely or not at all aware of Felix Hernandez (though plenty of other teams bring in plenty of casual fans, as they must if they're to reach the kind of gaudy attendance numbers the M's have pulled in over the last few years). But there's been a definite buzz running through the stadium all game long, with King Felix coronators and who-he fans joining together to gawk at the obvious phenom on the mound. LeCroy's leadoff hit--and the Jones single that follows to make it first and second, none out--suddenly jolt the entire throng upright. It's a random Tuesday night in a lost season for the Mariners, but 30,000-plus are pleading for Hernandez to get through this.

Ford's bunting, as my run-expectation table-obsessed self lets out a derisive snort. After fouling off the first attempt, Ford pushes a decent bunt to the left of the mound. Hernandez pounces on it, wheels and in one motion fires a perfect strike to Beltre for the out. That's it--that's who he reminds you of. Greg Maddux. Uncanny ability to mix pitches, talent mixed with ample baseball smarts, even the quick reflexes and handy glove. Hernandez is a 6'3", man-child Maddux.

He's also not out of the woods yet, especially after falling behind 2-0 to Morneau. Reaching back for something extra, he guns a 97-mph chest-high heater past Morneau's bat for strike one. But after missing to go to 3-1, Hernandez faces his first true crisis of the game. Reaching deeper into his bag of tricks, he pulls out a nasty, 95-mph sinker that Morneau taps foul. With the crowd now standing and cheering, Hernandez throws another fastball a little high and off the plate by Morneau for strike three. But on 0-2 to Tiffee, a routine grounder to Beltre becomes trouble when the third baseman's throw pulls Sexson off the bag.

How does King Felix fare under the gun? The first pitch is hit to his right, and Hernandez again bounds off the mound to make the play and kill the Twins' rally. Huge ovation--it's clear now that we're witnessing something special.

Pitch limits are sure to become an issue soon, or so it would seem. Through five Hernandez has thrown 67 pitches, an outrageous 48 (72%) of them for strikes. After 1-2-3 innings in both the 6th and 7th, his tally's at just 86. The Mariners finally break through for a run in the bottom of the 7th. After a two-out double by Jeremy Reed, rookie shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt comes up. He'd figure to be sorely overmatched, having a weak bat to begin with, facing a righty in a key situation, with Lohse looking strong to boot. Scanning the Mariner bench, though, it's an ugly sight: Spiezio, Hansen, Torrealba? When the M's one day climb back into contention, they can sweat those details. This time, the lack of bench hitting pays off, as Betancourt stays in and ropes an RBI triple to right-center.

When Hernandez comes back out for the 8th, another buzz washes over the crowd. If he can get through one inning, Hernandez can turn a lead over to the very reliable Eddie Guardado, making a first major league win a strong bet. Not missing a chance to stir up some drama, Hernandez cedes two singles around two outs, bringing up Punto with the game on the line. Looking as if he can command the hitter to do his bidding at any time, Hernandez induces yet another first-pitch tapper back to the mound. With the slightest hint of a fist pump and swagger, he exits to a deafening roar. Guardado mows down the Twins in order in the 9th, and Hernandez gets the first W in style, 1-0.

Though Hernandez's performance (8 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 6 K, 94 pitches) sent the crowd home giddy and excited, there's a lot to be said for seeing a boring Felix over the next five to 15 years in Seattle. With a devastating arsenal of pitches at his disposal, Hernandez can choose the Kerry Wood path of high pitch counts, high strikeout totals and higher injury risk. Or he can go the way of Maddux, reeling off seven-inning, one-run start after seven-inning, one-run start, building a career as a dominant, but efficient pitcher.

An off-hand remark I make to Derek, that Hernandez evokes the image of Maddux, spliced with Livan Hernandez's frame and athleticism, brought home the fragile nature of King Felix's future. Just mentioning the name of the pitcher who's worked harder than any other in the game by leaps and bounds nearly caused Derek to take a swing at me. A 19-year-old pitcher with the kind of talent Felix Hernandez possesses could be on the brink of the first of 300 major league wins--or a bright start to a career that ends prematurely on Dr. James Andrews' operating table.

Either way, we'll all be watching.

--

Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week happens Saturday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m. ET, as the San Francisco Giants take on the Florida Marlins, Channel 738 on DirecTV. Josh Beckett battles Brett Tomko as the Fish try to keep pace in the NL East and the Wild Card race.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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