It isn't that I don't still feel good for Jeff Weaver. I do. It's just that now last night is starting to make a little bit of sense.
Biggest Contribution: Felix Hernandez, +46.4%
Adrian Beltre, -4.9% Jose Vidro, -6.3%
Most Important At Bat: Lopez double, +15.1%
Most Important Pitch: McLouth strikeout, +9.6%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +49.6%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +0.3%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +0.1%
Ever since people identified Felix's pitch sequence issue last year when his struggles took us by surprise, everyone's been asking the same question: "how come it seems like Felix has to pay for his mistakes more than anyone else?" And it was a legitimate question, because it certainly seemed like he couldn't get away with anything. Every flat four-seamer over the middle of the plate went rocketing in the other direction. If sorry assclowns like Joel Pineiro and Julio Mateo can survive the occasional meatball, why can't Felix? How does that make any sense?
Thank goodness for the Pirates, enablers of a whole new kind of regression to the mean (to use the phrase of the month). Tonight wasn't Good Felix - tonight was Ordinary Felix against Bad Pittsburgh. Tonight was Felix surviving despite his mistakes for maybe the first time of his Major League career. And I'm not complaining. As I mentioned to Dave in an email around the seventh inning, I suppose it's better to be unimpressed by good results than unimpressed by bad ones.
If you only caught the box score, you probably think I'm crazy. Nine strikeouts against seven baserunners in eight innings easily goes down as one of the best-looking starts this team has had in a few years, the sort of thing that you'd think would indicate that Felix is on the way back. Surely tonight had to represent an improvement over the guy we've seen for the last several weeks since he came off the DL, right? Nobody goes from those numbers against Houston to these numbers against Pittsburgh without getting at least a little better, right?
Honestly, no, I don't really think so. As a way to get to that in a roundabout fashion, here's a side-by-side comparison of Enhanced Gameday screenshots for Felix's first innings on Opening Day and tonight. Is he as "back" as the eight shutout innings make it seem?
Opening Day, Felix's fastball spent most of its time at 98-99, occasionally reaching three figures. Tonight it was down at 95-96, scraping 97 but frequently dipping to 93-94 in the later innings. It's the same software in the same ballpark, so there aren't any consistency problems with the data. Clearly, Felix is missing a few miles. So there's clue #1 that he isn't the same pitcher he was. Clue #2 is that, while Felix only allowed a single ball out of the infield in his first start, tonight the outfielders got plenty of work. He's still a groundball pitcher even when he's at his worst, but the game against Oakland was Felix at his most dominant, and tonight wasn't even close.
Clue #3 is similar to clue #1, only broader: velocity aside, Felix's stuff is just worse now than it was in his first two starts. Or, perhaps more importantly, Felix's stuff tonight was just as underwhelming (by Felix's standards) as it was in Houston a few days ago. He isn't a guy on the comeback trail who suddenly made a lot of progress. He's a guy on the comeback trail who looked the same today as he did in most of his other games since coming off the DL. He just happened to run into a crummy opponent.
This is where it becomes important to understand the problems inherent in results-based analysis, at least as far as individual games are concerned. If you judge a pitcher by his final numbers, then what you're really doing is evaluating the total performance of the pitcher, the hitters, and (unless nobody put a ball in play) the defense. You can improve on that a little bit by focusing on things like strikeouts, walks, grounders, and homers, but still you're left blending the hitters with the pitcher, and that can skew your opinion. Over a few months or a full season, then yeah, by all means judge a guy by his statistics. But on an individual-game basis, doing that is just asking for trouble. The best way to evaluate a pitcher in a single game is by simply evaluating how well he actually pitches.
Which all finally brings us to tonight. And again, this wasn't so much Felix looking awesome as it was Felix getting away with mistakes thanks to the Pirates having a lousy lineup. To kick off, let's summarize what we saw from each individual pitch:
Four-seam fastball: straight, thrown a ton in the early innings (14/15 pitches in the first two frames, 19/22 in the first three), not exquisitely located but generally kept around the knees
Two-seam fastball: non-existent for a while, showed up in the later innings, sucked across the board except for one that went for a called strikeout, didn't have nearly as much movement as it did earlier in the year
Slider: flat, no bite, bad pitch two-thirds of the time it was thrown; the good ones were good, but the bad ones were meatballs
Changeup: flat, frequently overthrown, missed spots, safe for a batter to ignore as a possibility
Curveball: hammer, effective swing-and-miss pitch for most of the game, used to put people away instead of set them up, rarely put in the zone (presumably on purpose)
That's my report card for Felix's repertoire tonight, and while I don't pretend to be a professional, I'd like to think that I've watched him enough to get a pretty good idea of when his different pitches are working and when they aren't. And what we have in the end is that Felix struck out nine over eight shutout innings with one and a half pitches (plus curve and useful fastball). This is pretty much exactly what he's looked like since coming off the DL, as his two-seamer's gone by the wayside, his slider's lost its lethal bite, and his changeup's been hit or miss.
The newest theory (courtesy of Raffy Chaves) is that Felix isn't finishing his pitches properly, that he isn't getting a good follow-through and that it's having an effect on the break. This is something I can get behind, for two reasons:
- Follow-through makes or breaks a two-seamer or slider. I know for a fact that if you don't finish, you don't get the desired sharp movement.
- If Felix isn't finishing properly, that seems to go along with the idea that he's still pitching tentatively, and that he's trying to protect his arm as soon as he lets go of the ball. If you're afraid to re-injure your elbow, you're going to be cautious letting your throwing arm get full extension away from your body, so if Felix is trying to compensate, that makes some sense here.
So why did Felix have so much more success tonight than he did in Houston, if he was throwing the same stuff? Thank Pittsburgh. The Pirate batting order did everything in its power to hack away, and it just doesn't have enough good hitters to make that an effective approach. Go through the Enhanced Gameday pitch by pitch and look at all the fastballs out of the zone that the Pirates put in play early on. Arguably Felix's biggest problem has been coming back over the plate with flat predictable fastballs when he's behind in the count, but the Pirates never let him get that far, swinging at a lot of bad pitches early and bailing him out as he again did his damndest to 'establish the fastball'.
Even later on, when Felix started mixing in more breaking/offspeed stuff (as he does in all of his starts; it's a really weird pattern he has), Pittsburgh still helped him out. I give Felix all the credit in the world for those low-inside curveballs he used to strike out left-handed hitters; those are dynamite, unhittable pitches. But I don't think there's any arguing that a better offense would've given Felix a ton of trouble in the top of the fifth. I won't go into crazy detail, but of all the helpful at bats Pittsburgh provided for Felix over the course of the night, none was as courteous as Jose Bautista's with men on the corners, when he watched a 2-0 slider over the middle of the plate and then watched a 3-1 four-seamer at the belt. Bautista would end up walking, but a competent hitter makes that encounter significantly more painful. In short, I don't think there are many lineups that let Felix get out of the fifth without allowing any runs.
The help continued for the next few innings, as Felix came out throwing an uglier fastball after having to sit for a while during the Mariners' three-run fifth. It looked like he was trying to throw a bunch of two-seamers, as a lot of his fastballs suddenly had a little more sink and a little less velocity, but with rare exception, they weren't good pitches. Except for the one he used to strike out Ryan Doumit, which was totally awesome. The Felix we saw in innings 6-8 was visually even less impressive than the Felix we saw in the fifth, but thanks to a weak lineup and a great final at bat against Adam LaRoche to end the eighth, no damage was done, and Felix got to walk off a mound feeling successful and confident for the first time in months, even if he didn't have all his stuff.
I was happy to see Felix's energetic reaction to that final strikeout, and I was thrilled when JJ Putz sealed the win, but I'm more pleased with the ends than the means. Felix was due to catch a break eventually, as he couldn't keep having people hit every single one of his mistakes forever, but that doesn't mean I feel any better about him now than I did a day ago. Even with the terrific results, I just didn't see any indication tonight that this kind of statistical performance is about to become the norm. Maybe Felix just needed this jolt of confidence to get on a roll (it certainly couldn't hurt), but as long as he's satisfied with how he threw tonight, I'm going to live in fear that a better lineup will do to him again what Houston did last week, and that we'll end up right back in square one.
This whole thing probably sounds silly. What kind of nutjob is even the slightest bit unimpressed by eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts, especially after declaring his happiness following a worse performance the day before? I dunno. Maybe I'm making too big a deal of this. But I hold Felix to high standards. More than anything in the world I want to have as much confidence in him as I did after that game in Boston, and you better believe that as soon as he flashes that ability again I'll be right there at the front of the charge to get him back on his throne. Tonight, though, I didn't see it. Tonight I saw a bad lineup make a decent pitcher look great, when what I'm waiting to see is for a great pitcher to make a decent lineup look bad.
His next start'll come against those same Red Sox that he embarrassed at home before an international audience. In that respect, I guess there'd be no better time for him to re-claim his crown. I've been wary of making too big a deal out of the last few Felix Days, but while this one still didn't achieve my high standards, the next one's got quite the setup. You've been gone long enough, Good Felix. It's time to come home.
Ryan Feierabend takes on Aaron Harang and the Reds tomorrow at 7:05pm.