We have seen the future, and it is...young, and a little thick around the middle.
With all due respect to the Johan Santantas, Rich Hardens, and Josh Becketts of the world, Felix Hernandez is the future of pitching, and we're fortunate enough to have him around for the rest of the decade. If today is his jumping-off point, then it's going to be a thrilling six(+) years. With all the hoopla and anticipation surrounding Felix's start today, it would've been easy for him to wilt under the pressure and disappoint everyone, but all he did was face a solid lineup of Major League hitters for the first time in his career without allowing a single well-hit line drive. But more on this later.
The game itself...well, did anyone actually care about the game itself, at least after Felix was gone? Sure, there were some people who wanted to pick up a few runs to influence his decision (give him the win or get him off the hook for the loss), but that's still all revolving around the same guy. I think that, by the seventh inning or so, all anyone wanted to do was talk about how amazing Felix looked, with actually winning the ballgame being the last thing in their minds. And who can blame them?
However, the chart pays attention to everyone:
Biggest Contribution: Raul Ibanez, +13.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Wiki Gonzalez, -18.8%
Most Important Hit: Ibanez homer, +12.5%
Most Important Pitch: Gonzalez passed ball, -14.5%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +14.1%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -63.4%
Looking back, this was one of the most pathetic offensive performances by the Mariners all season. They managed just three hits, two walks, and a run off of Sean friggin' Douglass, he of the career 5.94 ERA. It's fitting that the lineup got stuck with the loss (according to win expectancy added, anyway), given that the pitching more than did its part to keep things within reach. One run might be enough to win a bunch of Felix starts down the road, but not in his debut. We don't need him going all Ryan Franklin on us and whining to the press about how his taking steroids isn't helping the offense generate any extra run support. Only Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez made positive contributions with the bat - Wiki Gonzalez almost entirely negated their production by himself. That's bad.
So, Felix. You couldn't have watched his five innings and not come away pretty impressed. I'd say he was exactly as advertised - a few control problems here and there, along with one ugly inning, but enough stuff and unhittability to make up for it. It was pretty easy to tell that he was all jittery in the first inning, but he settled in before too long, as Dmitri Young's double play began a stretch in which Felix retired 14 of the 16 batters he faced. With as much pressure as there was riding on his shoulders, and with as little experience as he has against ML-caliber hitters, I don't see any reason to be worried about Felix's rough start out of the gate. If anything, be impressed by the way he got out of the jam only allowing the one run.
Because of a crappy closed-circuit camera angle, it was difficult to gauge the location and movement of Felix's pitches, but this is a case where I think the hitters tell the story pretty well. They came out pretty patient, taking advantage of a seemingly tight strike zone in the early going, and Felix was missing away, both low and high. Once he found the zone, though, Detroit hitters had trouble getting his timing down, swinging through a few changeups and offering way behind a handful of fastballs that, according to the broadcast, were getting up there at 97mph. And the curveball...oh, what a curveball, a pitch as sharp as Gil Meche's, only with actual good location from time to time. By the looks of things, the Tigers didn't really have a chance to do too much damage up there. Look at that groundball/flyball ratio. 11:0. When these guys hit the ball, they were just pounding it straight into the ground. Not only does that show that Felix was keeping the ball down in his first start, but that he was getting a lot of late downward break on his pitches. I wonder how many pitchers in the league throw a "heavy" 97mph fastball.
Something else that instantly won me over was how quickly Felix was getting set and delivering the ball to home plate. Even when he was struggling to throw strikes in the first, he was still keeping up a pretty steady pace, something you don't really expect to see much from young pitchers (think Freddy Garcia). Of course, this could mean one of two drastically different things: either (A) Felix is mature for his age, unfazed by the occasional bump in the road, or (B) he was over-excited and just wanted to get the ball and throw it as quickly as he could to try and record his first out. Given how much we're heard about Felix's maturity, though, along with the fact that he kept up the pace for all five innings, I'm leaning towards option A. Maybe I'm biased, but then so are you, since you're reading this site.
What can a quick pace tell us about a guy? Ordinarily, those kinds of pitchers tend to settle into "grooves" more often than their more laggard counterparts, getting a feel for the ball and keeping it for the rest of the inning (or, in Felix's case, the next several innings, since the offense kept going down in order before his arm could get cold). However, they can have a little trouble getting into said groove in the first place, since their pitching style is more about catching-and-throwing than it is about making mental adjustments. With that in mind, I think the first batter of an inning will provide a pretty accurate indication of how Felix is feeling out there - if he's fighting to get into the zone, it could be a long, 20+ pitch frame, but if he gets ahead 0-1 or 0-2, it'll probably be quick. Anecdotal evidence from Tacoma games seem to support this statement. Think Jeff Nelson.
That Felix got through five innings on an 80-pitch limit in his Major League debut is just remarkable. I don't think there's really any negative that you can take out of his performance - the intermittent control problems were a little annoying, but it's not like we didn't know about them, and the Tigers didn't exactly make him pay when he came back over the plate. A-.
As for the rest of the game...who cares? Today belongs to Felix, and so does this recap. The Traveling Cirque du Pineiro makes a stop in the Windy City tomorrow afternoon (5:05pm) to take on a slightly overachieving Freddy Garcia.