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Community Projection: Felix Hernandez

(The fifth in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)

LL Community: 3.10 FIP (n=20)
PECOTA: 3.48
Bill James Handbook: 2.68
ZiPS: 3.63
Marcel: 3.66

Actual: 3.99 (3.56 xFIP)

First things first - I decided to go with FIP instead of ERA because it's both more predictable and more indicative of how a pitcher actually performed. It might be better, though, to consider all of these xFIP projections instead, since deviation between FIP and xFIP are generally random and tough to see coming. So unless there are any specific objections, I'm going to go ahead and believe that the LL community projected a 3.10 xFIP for Felix Hernandez and go from there.

(I'm thinking we'll probably just go with ERA for the next round. Also, if you're unfamiliar with FIP/xFIP, check the THT Glossary for definitions.)

This was an optimistic community - the worst individual forecast was for a 3.60 FIP, and nine people expected Felix to finish in the 2's. Compared to ZiPS, PECOTA, and Marcel, we were getting carried away with our positive thought, exceeded only by the Bill James Handbook's projection that Felix would singlehandedly return the Mariners to the playoffs by causing the rest of the division to forfeit. Looking at the numbers in hindsight, one could make the argument that we were blinded by Felix's talent and rendered unwilling to accept the possibility of a letdown.

This is one case where I'm going to defend the optimism that led to the 3.10 projection, though. Based on his 12 starts in 2005, there was simply no reason to expect Felix to do anything less than dominate the competition. In 84.1 innings he'd posted a 2.67/2.88/2.89 ERA/FIP/xFIP pitching line as a rookie with no prior knowledge of how to go about approaching different hitters. He threw strikes, he missed bats, and he kept the ball in the ground, accomplishing each of the three "good" things over which a pitcher has control. Simply put, it looked like the only thing that might - might - keep him out of the running for the Cy Young was the innings limit the team put on him before the year. Or injury, I guess, but no one really wanted to talk about that, just like no parent ever wants to talk about the possibility of their kid getting maimed in a car accident. Felix's injury risk was understood and rarely discussed.

The season began with Felix walking four A's in five innings, and it kind of snowballed from there. It seemed like every start Felix would have one problem that spoiled his overall line, be it walks, home runs, or hits. Four walks in five innings in his first game of the season. Two homers in five innings a week and a half later. Ten hits in five innings two weeks after that. He'd still keep the ball down and miss his share of bats, but almost every time you were left with the nagging disappointment that what you saw was Felix at something less than his best. It would've been fine for pretty much anyone else, but Felix was equipped with such phenomenal raw talent that sometimes it was difficult to believe that the guy you saw struggle in 2006 was the same guy who burst onto the scene with such flair a year earlier. It was tough to wrap your mind around a pitcher with that stuff getting hit that hard.

Things would get a little better over the course of the summer, and Felix finished with a bang, posting a 36/4 K/BB and a 3.43 ERA over his final six starts. Although his total line was below what people expected of him, the fact of the matter is that he finished the year both strong and healthy while other young arms like Francisco Liriano, Rich Harden, Justin Verlander, and Josh Johnson either got hurt or showed signs of fatigue, a feather in the cap of the organization that was committed to taking good care of their phenom from day one. Felix survived his first full season where so many other young pitchers have fallen short. I can't really overstate how significant that is.

Statistically, it looks like Felix was the victim of an awful lot of bad luck. His LOB% was low, his BABIP was high, and among pitchers with at least 100 innings his HR/FB% was behind only Runelvys Hernandez's gigantic ass. The difference between his ERA and xFIP was nearly a full run. If someone were to just glance at the numbers without having watched a single game, they'd think that Felix was a terrific pitcher done in by bad break after bad break.

It's not that simple, though. While Felix did suffer through a summer of bad luck (which will even out over time), he was personally responsible for at least some degree of his ERA inflation. We've talked about this a million times and by now you're probably sick of hearing about it, but Felix's was a problem of pitch selection. The four-seam fastball is easily his worst pitch, but he went to it far too often and in far too predictable a fashion, allowing hitters to sit on the heater and frequently deposit it somewhere in the bleachers. Adam Melhuse's grand slam way back when stands out to me as an example of a time when everyone in the world knew what pitch was coming. The four-seamer has good velocity, but unless Felix can put it exactly where he wants - which he's never been able to do, outside of those 12 starts last summer - it's not a great pitch, particularly when you see it coming ahead of time. If you want to know why he allowed so many home runs and line drives, here's problem #1. "Establishing the fastball" is an organizational mantra, but it's ultimately up to Felix to decide what he wants to throw, and this year he made an awful lot of bad decisions.

Felix doesn't need the heater to miss bats. His changeup and curveball are easily among the best in the league (the former being right up there with Cole Hamels, Johan Santana, and Trevor Hoffman), and when he threw those pitches, he got a ton of ugly swings. To his credit, he generally used offspeed stuff as his putaway pitches, but his biggest problem was setting them up, because he'd throw too many fastballs early in the count that were put into play. When Felix was gunning for a strikeout, too often he'd start with a few heaters before putting some spin on the ball, and it got him into trouble. The few times he went entire at bats without throwing anything over 90, he got terrific results. The hope is that he's learned something from this, but it's too early to say for sure.

With all that said, the most amazing thing about Felix is that he doesn't even need to rack up the strikeouts to succeed. Rather, Felix is at his best when he's inducing groundballs. This has led to the suggestion that he might be most effective as a Roy Halladay type, throwing a ton of two-seamers to keep the ball on the ground and only really going for the punchout in pressure situations with men on base. Felix's sinking fastball is good enough to let him succeed with such an approach, and it would come with the added benefit of allowing him to work deeper into games since quick groundouts are good for the ol' pitch count. He wouldn't look like the flashy dynamo he was last September, but he'd still be among the most valuable players in baseball, due to both his effectiveness and his endurance.

But that might be more of a writer's dream than anything else, because you can't expect someone with Felix's repertoire to settle for lazy outs. When your stuff is that good, you want to intimidate and you want to miss a lot of bats, because pitching is all about feeling in control, and there's no better way to take the game into your hands than by striking everyone out. Expecting Felix to turn into Roy Halladay would be asking a lot of him, both in terms of maturation and development as a pitcher. He's gotten this far as a power arm, and he's probably going to continue along that path. Which is perfectly fine, because he has the rare ability to post 2.75 ERA's while striking out a hitter an inning, and you can't ask someone like that to try and get by like other pitchers with lesser stuff. Felix knows his arsenal is better than Roy Halladay's, and he's going to want to pitch like it.

So here's what it comes down to - how much did Felix learn in 2006? The fact that he stayed healthy all year is terrific, but if he didn't learn any lessons from his mistakes, then it doesn't matter. To borrow an overused cliche, Felix came into the season as a thrower instead of a pitcher, and he needs to work on changing that if he wants to become one of the best players of his generation. Hopefully, now that he's made his mistakes and taken his lumps, he has a better understanding of the perils of predictable fastballs, and of the upside of changing speeds. We can't say for sure whether or not this is actually true, but the fact that he improved in the second half is an encouraging sign.

And really, why wouldn't Felix be smarter now than he was in March? Young players improve because they gain experience, and experience is just knowledge in terms of games played, so there's no reason why Felix should be any exception. He's not known as a particularly stubborn guy, and Raffy Chaves has raved about his coachability in the past. There are questions about his work ethic, but effort and education are two related but separate entities, and it would be possible for Felix to come into 2007 and start mowing people down just with better pitch selection, even if he's a little squishy in the middle. His raw ability is on such a level that he barely needs to exert himself in order to be great. Being the greatest requires a certain amount of dedication, but Felix isn't like David Eckstein, where he needs to put everything into every play to get by. Effort isn't what's going to keep him from being a terrific pitcher. Knowledge is.

I feel like I'm beginning to ramble, so I should probably cut this off now before it gets any longer. Felix has been blessed with tremendous natural talent, giving him a leg up on the competition. In 2006 he (and we) found out that said ability doesn't automatically translate to a league-leading ERA. In 2007 we hope that he applies to his approach the lessons he should've learned this past summer, elevating his game to that of a bonafide and terrifying staff ace. He's a little immature and may not be real quick to learn from his mistakes, but he's only 20 years old, so that's nothing out of the ordinary. I'd still have to think long and hard about trading him for any other pitcher in baseball.

Felix Hernandez is better than Rich Harden. He's better than Jered Weaver. He's better than Justin Verlander, Jon Papelbon, Cole Hamels, and whatever's left of Francisco Liriano. All he has to do is realize it.