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Youth Movement: Felix Hernandez

Only once every five blue moons or so does there come along a prospect so good that he exceeds all expectations immediately upon promotion to the big leagues. Felix was such a prospect. Consider him a Shawshank in a season full of You Got Serveds. Rescued from Tacoma in early August, Felix came to Seattle and did more than anyone could have ever imagined, dominating hitters a decade his senior en route to making ten great starts out of twelve total appearances. The early struggles that we endured with Blackley and Nageotte (among others) when they first broke in were nowhere to be found. By the end of the season, the world had become fully aware of what we'd known for a long time: Felix Hernandez is really, really good. The only question now is whether or not a Seattle-hating God will allow Felix to pitch long enough to ascend to his proper throne atop the Major Leagues, because divine intervention is pretty much the only thing capable of slowing him down.

Background: Felix has only seen Seattle for three months, but Seattle's seen Felix for six years. The Mariners began scouting the kid in Venezuela at the tender age of 14, and two years later found themselves in competition with eight or ten other clubs to sign him to a contract. The $710k deal he eventually agreed to with Seattle was a considerable amount for an undrafted free agent, but both sides knew it was a good idea - Felix appreciated the Mariners' long-term interest (along with the fact that his idol, Freddy Garcia, was a member of the organization), and the Mariners appreciated Felix's tremendous stuff. Said Bob Engle:

"He was a big kid with a good arm and good velocity, but the separator physically was his breaking ball," says Bob Engle, the Mariners' director of international operations. "He had a very advanced curveball for a young man."

Felix hit professional baseball the next season, and while the organization limited his innings, fans in Everett could tell from the start that he was something special. He closed the 2003 season with two terrific starts in Wisconsin, and this was apparently all the proof the guys in charge needed that he was better than low-A ball, because he began 2004 in Inland Empire. 114 strikeouts later, Felix found himself in AA as an 18 year old, still whiffing more than a batter an inning. He instantly became the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball that offseason, and it wasn't particularly close.

While everyone knew that it would be in the team and Felix's best interests to try and take it slowly in an effort to avoid overstressing his arm, there was also a little piece of everyone's brain that wanted to see him begin 2005 with the Mariners, just to catch a glimpse of what he can do. The organization elected to take the conservative route and send Felix to Tacoma to start the year, but after 88 dominant innings there just wasn't anything more they could do to keep him down. Felix Hernandez's Major League career began on August 4th in an untelevised day game against the Tigers. The rest is history.

Performance: I find it difficult to remain completely objective when it comes to talking about Felix with friends or other writers, because Felix is our crown jewel, and I want to talk him up as much as I can like a mother does with her Honor Roll child (or, in Felix's case, I suppose "her Supreme Ruler of the Universe child" would be more appropriate). Fortunately, when I feel like I'm being a little too biased, I can just go back to the numbers and remind myself that it's almost impossible to exaggerate how good this guy is. Felix's ability is probably best summed up by looking at the following list, which shows where he would've finished among qualified pitchers in the indicated categories had he thrown enough innings:

ERA: 4th out of 93 pitchers
FIP: 5th
xFIP: 1st
Line Drive%: 1st
K/G: 5th
HR/G: 7th
GB/FB: 2nd

His walk rate was middle-of-the-pack,, just look at that. That kind of total awesomeness as a teenager. It wasn't from facing a bunch of bad lineups, either - it was just a 19 year old blowing through the best hitters in the world. On top of all that, there's no real indication that any of those numbers are going to regress going forward (save for the line drives, which doesn't appear to be a repeatable skill), because they're all consistent with his track record. Felix has always struck out a ton of batters. Felix has always kept the ball on the ground. When you do both those things well, and you add in the Safeco environment with the Mariners' infield defense behind you, you're virtually guaranteed to have an ERA in the low-3's, if not the high-2's. Speaking on a strictly performance level, Felix's chances of bombing are among the lowest of all the pitchers in the league.

If you're looking for a slightly more numerical explanation, consider this - assuming 500 balls in play (just groundballs and fly balls, line drives excluded), and using the run values given in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual, the difference between Felix Hernandez and a league-average pitcher is about +12 runs based on GB/FB ratio alone. Over 200 innings, those 12 runs equal 54 ERA points, roughly the same gap as the one separating Gil Meche and respectability. That's huge. Amazing what you can do when you rarely allow opportunities for doubles, triples, and homers. Note that this doesn't even begin to scrape the surface of what kind of additional advantage Felix has by virtue of his strikeout ability.

I had a whole format planned out for this post, but I'm going to ignore that and instead refer you back to The 2005 Skeptic's Guide to Felix Hernandez that I wrote last March (understand that I wrote that piece not because I didn't think Felix was totally awesome, but because somebody had to point out the risks). In that post, I pointed out six things to be wary of in 2005 - his age, his slider, his experience at high levels, his control, his adjustment periods, and his mechanics. Now that it's been a year, let's see how Felix responded to each of them:

Age: Still a bit of a concern, although less so than it was before the season. That's just how it is with young pitchers, particularly 20 year olds. On the plus side, Felix threw a career-high 172.1 innings without showing any signs of fatigue, and the team took reasonable care of him in the big leagues, all things considered - although it's admittedly a flawed metric, Felix's Pitcher Abuse Points were just middle-of-the-pack. There's a lot of talk about limiting his innings again in 2006 and keeping him out of stressful situations, which is good news, because it shows that the organization is well aware of how careful they need to be with this guy. There's no reason to believe that they're going to go all Bob Melvin-like and leave Felix out there for 140 pitches, so if anything bad happens here, it'll probably be the fault of plain old bad luck.

Added bonus: Felix has shown himself to be incredibly mature for his age, listening to coaches, respecting his teammates, and adapting very well on the fly. Any concerns that he'd let his ability go to his head appear thus far to have been unwarranted.

The Slider: Nothing to worry about here. I don't think Felix threw a single slider all year long, and leaving it out certainly didn't hurt his performance. His repertoire is already so good that I don't think he really needs another pitch, even if it's as good as people say his slider looks in the bullpen. When you throw a fastball in the high-90s, a changeup in the low-80s, and a 12-6 curveball that comes at hitters like a bullet and drops six feet, a fourth pitch is pretty unnecessary. Felix's arsenal is one of the best in the game.

Highest Level: Non-factor. Felix breezed through AAA and then improved after getting promoted to the Majors. He's one of those guys who doesn't need to equilibrate at every level; you just keep bumping him up until he either starts to struggle, or you run out of higher places to send him. Guess which one applies to Felix!

Control: Felix's K/BB in Tacoma was the lowest it'd ever been (2.08), but he picked it back up in Seattle, jumping all the way to 3.35. He did show some occasional signs of losing the strike zone, but by and large, he was better than I ever thought he'd be. Theories abound on why he made such an improvement after getting promoted to Seattle, ranging from "he was bored in AAA" to "he was pitching smarter with the Mariners instead of trying to strike everyone out". I'm not sure what the actual explanation is, but as long as he's doing such a good job of limiting his free passes, I really won't care.

What's unusual about Felix is how his fastball might actually be his worst pitch, at least in terms of command. He isn't able to throw it to specific locations in specific counts like, say, a Greg Maddux or Mark Prior, but it has enough speed and movement to render that a pretty insignificant problem. I'd say his best offering is his curveball, in that not only is it practically unhittable, but that he's also able to locate it better than his other pitches. Watching him drop one of those on a batter in a 1-2 count is enough to make you laugh out loud. Felix's curveball is what makes baseball fun to watch.

Mechanics: Here we go. If there are two concerns about Felix, they're that (1) he's extremely young, and (2) he doesn't have perfect mechanics (You can get a visual look at them here). The issue is that there's nothing you can do about #1, and if you try to change #2, you run the risk of potentially affecting his performance.

The biggest "red flag" in Felix's delivery, so to speak, is the way he handles his lead arm (the one with the glove). He keeps it in good position through the early stages, but as he begins to bring the ball around towards release, he tucks his lead arm back into his side, by his hip. This does two things: one, because his glove is short of his stride foot, his release point is closer to his body than it has to be, and two, it pulls his upper body towards first base a little bit, so that were you to draw a line through his legs to his head, it would no longer be perpendicular to the ground.

As far as #1 is concerned, the effect of releasing closer to the body is that you're releasing further from the plate, meaning that the ball will break earlier and appear to be traveling slower than it would were it released more forward. As far as #2 is concerned, you've suddenly got energy going in a direction that isn't straight towards the plate, and you've also forced the throwing arm to come across the body a little bit. The overall effect here is an elevated risk of injury, as the shoulder has to deal with additional stress right at the point where the body and arm are moving forward with the most force.

So, what do you do? While Felix's mechanical flaws almost certainly play a part in his oft-spotty command (particularly the way his head is all off line at release), they clearly haven't kept him from becoming the best young pitcher in baseball. He's had the same delivery for as long as he's been in the organization, and he's still managed to be beyond fantastic. You can't justify altering his mechanics with a performance-based argument.

This leaves you with the injury thing, where smoothing out some of the kinks may lessen the risk of Felix ever going under the knife. At the same time, though, Felix hasn't been hurt in three years, and if you try to straighten some things out, you might radically alter who he is on the mound. The slightest change in a guy's delivery can have an enormous effect on his performance, and that's a pretty big risk to take when you're dealing with someone as talented as Felix.

The answer? Do nothing. There's just more risk involved in trying to "fix" Felix than there is in simply letting him be and crossing your fingers. With some guys, you have to take the bad with the good and hope that nothing snaps, strains, or breaks. Felix is one of those guys. Don't fix what isn't broken, right? He's gotten this far, so I think by now you just have to trust him. Pay close attention and make sure that nothing suddenly goes out of whack, but don't try to intervene too much, either. It just isn't worth it. If Felix gets hurt, then he gets hurt - that's just the nature of the beast. There's no such thing as a risk-free pitcher.

("Brief") Summary: I don't need to beat around the bush, here. Barring injury, there is absolutely no reason why Felix Hernandez can't go on to become the greatest pitcher of his generation. He has the stuff, the youth, the makeup, and the environment to excel for a very long time. What's scary is that the only thing capable of holding him back is invisible to the naked eye, the same silent killer that's struck down thousands of promising careers before, and will continue to do so for as long as people are throwing baseballs to each other. It's the kind of thing that'll linger in the back of our minds for as long as Felix is a Mariner, not only because we've become conditioned to expect it, but also because he's such an invaluable asset, a guy who by himself is able to keep the team afloat in even the most dire of circumstances. Honestly, as Felix goes, so do I - he's capable of both completely rejuvenating my enthusiasm for the team and thoroughly destroying it. I don't think I could deal with a severe injury, not to Felix. Were that to take place, I'd have a hard time justifying to myself why I spend so much time paying attention to this team when all it ever provides in return is utter heartbreak.

May it never come to that.

In Felix I trust.