...and only three back of the division leaders. That's really kind of remarkable when you consider that this team has gotten next to nothing from (A) its most expensive player in franchise history, (B) it's second-most expensive player in franchise history, and (C) a pitcher who many of us thought would compete for the Cy Young. That's not really all, either. Look up and down the roster and you'll see two, maybe three guys who are dramatically exceeding preseason expectations, a bunch of others who are right around where we thought they'd be, and six important players who're nowhere close. True, spring forecasts become largely irrelevant once the games start being played, but you can't help but get the sense that the Mariners are going to have a lot more guys trending up than trending down over the rest of the season, and that has to make you feel good. This is a lousy division that's going to be won by an unimpressive squad with more than its fair share of problems. Why not Seattle?
I always love the charts:
Biggest Contribution: Jeremy Reed!, +10.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Felix Hernandez, -19.6%
Most Important Hit: Reed single, +11.7%
Most Important Pitch: Roberts homer, -16.0%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -7.1%
Total Contribution by Hitters: +43.8%
Felix Hernandez has now earned the "Biggest Suckfest" label in six of his nine starts this season, after getting tagged with it all of twice a year ago. More than Beltre, more than Sexson, more than anything else, that has to be the single most discouraging thing about the 2006 Mariners so far. It's one thing for a supposedly untouchable phenom to struggle once or twice, but for the better part of two months? At this point, I think we can say with a high degree of certainty that something's wrong and needs to be fixed, because it won't work itself out over time like we thought it would. I mean, okay, the .371 BABIP is crazyridiculous and bound to regress to a more reasonable level over the rest of the season, but after today Felix still has a 5.02 FIP, just shy of two full runs above where it was last summer. It hasn't just been "grounders with eyes." Right now, Felix Hernandez is a bad pitcher. We've never had to face that before.
In the first inning, you could tell that Felix was trying to work on the adjustment that he and Chaves had talked about a few days earlier. Chaves thought Felix was rushing his delivery, and that this was leading to lousy results, so he tried to smooth out something earlier in the sequence to make everything flow better and give Felix better command of both his body and the ball. It's a fine idea, and I'm excited to see how it turns out in the end, but in the meantime, you see things like this:
These are images from two consecutive pitches to Dave Roberts in the first inning. The left is Normal Felix - he falls towards first base after releasing the ball, quickly swinging his right leg around and forcefully slamming it into the ground to keep himself upright during the follow-through. The right is Adjustment Felix - the delivery is smoother, the leg swing is slower, and he cushions his right foot impact by keeping his left knee bent. There's less of a "fall" off the mound, and while he still doesn't end up in real good defensive position, it's better than where he usually is. In short, the guy on the right has better mechanics than the guy on the left, and it's evident in how each of them look when their right legs touch down.
The problem is twofold: for one, Felix dominated the AL with the left-side mechanics a year ago, suggesting that the problems may lie elsewhere; and two, he just about abandoned the right-side delivery as the game went on after switching back and forth between them in the early going. In the first inning I remarked that Felix's mechanics were looking wildly inconsistent, but while he started doing a better job of repeating his delivery as the game wore on, he was repeating his old, familiar delivery, rather than the one he and Chaves had recently worked on. Alcoholics and nose-pickers don't get cured by reverting back to their bad habits, and neither will Felix.
While this was a little irritating, though, it's important to point out that it wasn't necessarily unexpected - mechanical adjustments take a lot of time and intense commitment for any pitcher, and they're not the sort of thing that can be put into practice overnight. Muscle memory is a fickle beast, requiring a lot of repetition to permanently change, but needing only one or two mistakes to erase all your progress. If Chaves is convinced that he's spotted the source of Felix's problems, we won't be able to pass judgment for at least several weeks, if not months. All we can do in the meantime is hope that Transition Felix looks more like 2005 Felix and less like the 2006 edition.
Of course, the underlying assumption here is that Chaves' mechanical adjustment will make Felix a better pitcher, and I don't know that that's true. It'll probably make him a safer pitcher if implemented correctly, but again, this guy looked unhittable with lousy mechanics a year ago, so maybe trying to make him smooth things out isn't the right approach. Perhaps the violent rotation is part of what made him so effective. Maybe getting him to be smoother will reduce his velocity, movement, or deception. I'm not saying that any of these are true, but they're just as likely as the more optimistic alternative. It's the old question about whether or not you should tinker with a pitcher's messy delivery if he's throwing the ball well. Felix's bad mechanics look almost identical to the ones he used a year ago when he was awesome, so is that really the source of the trouble? Is that really the thing Chaves wants to spend the next chunk of his career working on? I'll have to defer to him on this one, since he has better imaging equipment and angles that let him pick up on more subtle differences than MLB.tv allows me to notice, but all I'm saying is that I'm not 100% convinced. I'm intrigued, but I have to wonder if this'll end up being less about fixing Felix and more about changing him.
I just want my pitcher back.
I guess it's funny that, lousy outing and all, Felix still came away with his third win of the season, thanks in large part to the Mariners' biggest inning in three years. If you take that "8" and turn it on its side, then you see by how many times the Mariners outscored the rest of the AL West today (in case you're a little slow on the mental draw, the Angels, Rangers, and A's were all shut out, and ten is infinity times bigger than zero). Single. Single. Single. Single. Squeeze bunt and error. Single. Then Raul Ibanez and Carl Everett got tired of nickel and diming the poor bastard on the hill and sent balls over the fence. It was quick, and if you had to step out of the room you probably missed it, but that rally has to be the high point of the season, even more than Ichiro's throw or Everett's walk-off homer. For a handful of minutes, the Mariner lineup looked invulnerable. I haven't felt that way since 2001.
That said, what might've been most important was how the offense responded to San Diego's rally in the sixth. While it would probably be easy to get into the mentality of "oh, we already scored eight in an inning, we've done our job," Dave Roberts' home run that cut the lead to one seemed to wake the lineup back up, as it came out in the bottom half looking determined to re-establish a more comfortable lead. Chan Ho Park deserves some credit for this, since he wound up walking in the eventual game-winning run, but given that Hargrove stupidly called for another Jose Lopez sac bunt with two on just moments earlier, I'd like to think that it's even. Once Sexson walked, I felt a lot more comfortable; Everett's single only made things easier, and while I'd prefer that Josh Bard would quit going deep off my favorite reliever, it's hard not to think that the game's essentially over when you hand a three-run lead to Raffy Soriano and JJ Putz. They're the untouchable tandem who've made all of Seattle pretty much forget about Eddie Guardado's terrifying self-destruct sequence initiated in early April, and listening to the end of the game on the radio as I was driving on the freeway, I found myself actually shouting and pumping my fist after each out was recorded, rather than breathing a deep sigh of relief like I would've a few weeks ago. Reliably is invaluable.
Four game set against Baltimore opens up tomorrow night, with Jamie Moyer taking on Erik Bedard, whose claim to fame is that I finally figured out that he and Eric DuBose are different pitchers. Although I guess that's really not a claim to fame at all. It's actually kind of the opposite.