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August 15, 2005
Two starts into his major-league career, 50 starts as a professional, barely old enough to vote in the U.S., certainly not old enough to buy alcohol here…and yet Felix Hernandez has been branded royalty. That's not bad for someone who started the 2004 season in the California League.
What isn't hype is how rare it is for a pitcher to be ready for the major leagues at such a young age. Barring something unexpected, Hernandez is going to be the first pitcher since 1984 to make five starts in the majors as a 19-year-old. (I'm referring to actual age rather than baseball age here.) In modern baseball, even pitchers acquired outside of the draft and signed at a young age don't advance to the majors as quickly as Hernandez has. Since 1947, the year in which the game was integrated and two years clear of World War II's effect on the player pool, just 34 pitchers with a baseball age of 19 or younger have started at least five games in a season. Four pitchers--David Clyde, Larry Dierker, Mike McCormick and Jim Waugh--had two such seasons. (Over at ESPN.com, Alan Schwarz did a very interesting piece on the 17 pitchers since 1965 who made their MLB debuts at an even younger age than Hernandez's 19 years, four months.)
In the last two decades, just 24 pitchers have started five or more games in a season as even a true 20-year-old. That group is a mixed bag of performance, ranging from Greg Maddux and Dwight Gooden at the high end to Hector Fajardo and Joel Davis at the low. Quite frankly--has that been copyrighted yet?--I was surprised to see how good a pool of pitchers this was. It's no secret that I am highly suspect of young pitchers, and I expected reaching the majors at 20 to be more or less a contraindicator of success. Overall, though, reaching the majors at 20 years old seems to be, in and of itself, a decent indication of quality:
Scott Kazmir (2004)
Again, I point out that this reflects actual age at the time of the pitchers' first five starts, and not necessarily baseball age.
Back to Hernandez's true peers, the 19-year-olds. Since 1947, 30 pitchers have made five or more starts in their age-19 campaigns. The list includes Hall of Famers such as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Jim Palmer, the kind of comps that should warm a Mariners fan's heart. Stars who aren't in Cooperstown, such as Bert Blyleven, Jose Rijo and Dwight Gooden are also included. There are some busts as well, such as Rick Ankiel and David Clyde. Overall--and again, I'll admit to some surprise here--it's not a list that supports my idea that reaching the majors at 19 is an indication of future problems.
Rick Ankiel (1999)
Let's ask a more limited question, and one that gets a bit closer to my concerns about Hernandez's future: can he, or anyone, be an effective major-league pitcher at 19 and at 23? If Hernandez has, say, the career path of Jim Palmer or Kerry Wood, where a chunk of his early--cheap--years is lost to a major injury, that dramatically reduces his value to the Mariners.
The 30 pitchers in the list above had the following career path, collectively:
Age Pit IP ERA H BB SO HR WARP 19 30 3298.2 3.97 3162 1404 2076 300 63.2 20 26 3321.1 3.57 3012 1244 2276 284 83.0 21 24 3751.1 3.54 3424 1398 2582 319 83.7 22 21 3798.0 3.36 3431 1419 2653 333 102.7 23 26 4193.2 3.35 3794 1434 2957 348 101.9 24 25 4289.0 3.35 3802 1472 2853 396 107.9
That's awfully impressive. While there was some attrition--nearly a third of 19-year-olds didn't pitch in the majors at 22--the pitchers who remained got better every year as a group. It's not the trend I would have expected, and it certainly makes me more optimistic about Hernandez's future.
Let's run at this from a slightly different direction. Considering only the pitchers in the above group who made their debuts after 1968--eight of them--what were the career paths?
Age Pit IP ERA H BB SO HR WARP 19 9 689.1 4.18 693 305 545 58 13.5 20 8 690.0 3.01 565 281 643 64 24.3 21 6 785.1 3.80 677 323 588 79 14.5 22 5 671.1 3.90 713 227 398 57 17.2 23 7 865.0 3.66 847 286 580 55 18.1 24 6 560.1 3.39 508 174 378 47 15.5(Thanks to Paul Swydan for his research help.)
More or less the same pattern: attrition, with improvement for the pitchers who were able the take the mound. The spike in the age-20 season is mostly Gooden's 1985 campaign. The line isn't as clean, but then again, it's six to nine pitchers in each group. We're dealing with smaller and smaller samples here, but given what we see in the charts above, there's little reason to conclude that Hernandez can't be effective at 22-23 just because he's pitching in the majors now. In fact, it seems likely that he'll be at one extreme or another: effective or unable to pitch at all. That's not what I expected to find, and it indicates that one aspect of my skepticism over Hernandez's future has little merit.
So far, Hernandez hasn't given any of his admirers reason to doubt his abilities, allowing just one run in his first 13 major-league innings. That those innings came against the Twins--recently handcuffed by Aaron Small--and the Tigers--mesmerized last week by Scott Downs--hasn't slowed the advancing hordes carrying robes and crowns and scepters.
Actually, Hernandez's first steps in the majors are a credit to the Mariners and their braintrust. If you're going to break in a young pitcher with this much potential and who attracts this much attention, you want to maximize his chance of success and minimize, to the extent that you can, the hubbub. You can address this by starting him on the road, against bad teams, with a good defense behind him, in good pitchers' environments, in small markets, in untelevised games.
Hernandez's first start came on a Thursday afternoon in Comerica Park in a game that wasn't televised anywhere. His second came against a poor Twins' lineup at Safeco Field. His third will come against the Royals at Safeco Field. The next number in this sequence is an intrasquad game against his Mariners' teammates, followed by a start against the Washington state representative to the Little League World Series regionals.
That Hernandez is being handled well at the start of his career is an important point, because he's pitching for an organization that has shown no ability to turn pitching prospects into major-league pitchers. Over the last decade, the Mariners have produced more arm surgeries than useful pitchers, and it isn't close. It's not just the spectacular failures of guys like Ryan Anderson and Ken Cloude; it's the steady, consistent conversion of guys considered prospects into…nothing.
From 1995-2004, 27 pitchers were listed among the Mariners' annual Top Ten Prospects by Baseball America. In that time, those 27 pitchers produced the following numbers for the Mariners (thanks, Keith Woolner):
Pitcher G GS IP VORP Freddy Garcia 170 169 1096.1 255.6 Joel Pineiro 115 93 641.1 151.8 Gil Meche 86 85 485.1 85.7 Rafael Soriano 56 8 103.2 29.7 Rafael Carmona 81 4 155.0 24.0 Bob Wolcott 56 52 286.0 16.8 Ron Villone 75 10 136.1 12.2 Matt Thornton 19 1 32.2 7.8 Brian Fuentes 10 0 11.2 1.9 Cha Baek 7 5 31.0 -1.5 Matt Wagner 15 14 80.0 -1.8 Jordan Zimmerman 12 0 8.0 -2.0 Damaso Marte 5 0 8.2 -2.5 Clint Nageotte 12 5 36.2 -5.5 Aaron Taylor 20 0 21.1 -6.5 Dennis Stark 9 3 21.0 -8.4 Travis Blackley 6 6 26.0 -13.0 Ken Cloude 71 45 278.2 -17.8 Mac Suzuki 23 9 69.2 -22.3Seven other pitchers on those BA lists never reached the majors with the Mariners, the only notable one being Shawn Estes, traded to acquire Solomon Torres in 1995. The 27th pitcher is Hernandez.
Freddy Garcia's presence atop this list is a bit specious. Acquired at the 1998 trade deadline as part of the Randy Johnson package, Garcia was a Mariners' "prospect" for exactly one winter, and made all of five starts in their minor leagues before establishing himself as a major-league starter. He's not really a product of their development system, although he is the best, perhaps only, example of the team's turning a prospect into a major-league pitcher. Joel Pineiro had 2½ good years, and Gil Meche has been OK when he's pitched, although he did miss two seasons to shoulder surgery. Those are the good data points.
(Ron Villone's numbers are inflated by his return to the Ms in 2004. He had a 17.4 VORP that season, cancelling his -5.2 from his 1995 debut with the team, prior to his being traded to the Padres.)
The Mariners' success over the past decade has been in spite of their pitcher development. Keith Woolner was kind enough to generate a list of all Mariners' pitchers for the 1995-2004 period, which reveals that the vast majority of the good work in that time came from pitchers acquired by, not developed by, the Mariners. The top 15 from each category provides an idea of the gap:
Pitcher G GS IP VORP Jamie Moyer 267 266 1733.0 395.8 Freddy Garcia 170 169 1096.1 255.6 Randy Johnson 97 90 648.2 213.1 Aaron Sele 68 67 426.2 98.2 Arthur Rhodes 276 0 261.0 90.1 John Halama 130 81 557.0 86.7 Paul Abbott 99 70 465.2 85.0 Jeff Fassero 97 91 598.0 73.4 Jose Paniagua 206 0 246.0 71.1 Kazuhiro Sasaki 228 0 223.1 65.2 Shigetoshi Hasegawa184 0 211.1 63.6 Norm Charlton 215 0 240.1 45.3 Mike Timlin 96 0 105.0 34.5 Tim Belcher 28 28 179.1 25.6 Bobby Ayala 246 0 310.1 24.3 Pitcher G GS IP VORP Joel Pineiro 115 93 641.1 151.8 Ryan Franklin 149 76 620.2 113.1 Gil Meche 86 85 485.1 85.7 Jeff Nelson 218 0 227.1 78.1 Julio Mateo 107 0 164.1 40.2 Rafael Soriano 56 8 103.2 29.7 Bobby Madritsch 15 11 88.0 28.0 Bob Wolcott 56 52 286.0 16.8 Rafael Carmona 81 4 155.0 24.0 Ron Villone 75 10 136.1 12.2 J.J. Putz 57 0 66.2 9.4 Scott Atchison 25 0 30.2 9.4 Matt Thornton 19 1 32.2 7.8 Tim Davis 46 5 73.1 7.5 George Sherrill 21 0 23.2 4.5Again, the numbers for Nelson and Villone reflect multiple tenures with the team.
What does this all mean for Hernandez? I'm not sure. It's safe to say that we don't have enough information on guys like him; he is a unique figure in the last 20 seasons, and even the track records of the 19-year-old pitchers who came before him provide just a rough guide to expectations.
Hernandez has shown the skills to impress the scouts and put up the performance record to make statheads take notice. That, in and of itself, is a good sign; when those two groups agree on a pitcher, it's a good sign. The observations of the two groups converge nicely; Hernandez's power repertoire and ability to keep the ball down show up in his strikeout rate and GB/FB ratios.
I don't think there's any reason to doubt Hernandez's ability to pitch in the major leagues right now. His command may need some work, and he almost certainly has things to learn about approach and conditioning and all the other things that his limited professional experience may leave him lacking. Nevertheless, I can see him as a 3.00-3.50 ERA guy this year, and a bit better than that in 2006.
What I don't know is whether throwing his next 280 innings in the majors will have a deleterious effect on his right arm. The evidence suggests that being 19 and in the majors leagues isn't a death sentence. That said, given what we know about young pitchers going through the injury nexus--not just special cases like Hernandez, but all young pitchers--I'm reserving my enthusiasm. I don't see the warning signs in Hernandez that I did in, say, Oliver Perez, and it will be up to the Mariners to keep it that way.
What's scary is those lists of Mariner pitchers above; to make this work, the Mariners will have to do with Hernandez what they simply haven't done with their pitching prospects: keep them healthy and effective over a period of years.
King Felix? Great nickname, one I hope he someday earns. For now, he's a terrific talent and a great story. Watch him tonight if you can.