Texas thinks they're hot stuff but the joke's on them, we weren't even trying.
Biggest Contribution: Ben Broussard, +7.0%
Biggest Suckfest: Felix Hernandez, -31.5%
Most Important At Bat: Broussard homer, +8.7%
Most Important Pitch: Matthews double, -22.4%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -31.3%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -18.6%
So this is what happens when the gods pay attention. After punishing us for our misdeeds with another losing season, the spirits were dissatisfied with our resigned compliance, so, like any good parent, they decided to step it up by destroying our favorite toy. They dragged us by our ears into the backyard and made us watch as they beat the crap out of our King, delivering blow after blow over the sound of our tears and only relenting when their fists got bloody and sore. The King was then returned, in tatters, with a simple message: stay in the God damn basement or bear the brunt of their wrath. Silent, we took what was left of the toy, turned around, and walked back inside.
Look, this is what it comes down to - if Felix is going to string together a bunch of starts like this one, then the rest of the season just isn't going to be any fun at all. Watching (or hearing, since today's game was blacked out on MLB.tv) the most talented arm in franchise history get slapped around like a guy in an Angels jersey at a Knowledgeable Long-Time Baseball Fan Convention is one of the more unpleasant things you can experience once your team's playoff hopes are shot. More than anything else, the future of the Mariners rests on Felix Hernandez's right arm, and while he should still be spectacular in the long run, I'm getting tired of waiting. If he's not going to pitch well over the rest of the season, then how can I justify continuing to pay so much attention to this team? I can't. I really can't.
I'm probably overreacting. (It wouldn't be the first time.) Although I couldn't watch any of his performance, Felix stunk today, but then he was downright terrific in his previous start when he breezed through an over-eager lineup of both young and retread(ed) Devil Rays. Today is no better an indication of how he's going to pitch from this point forward than last Tuesday was, so at least we've got that going for us. I would've rather he flip-flopped those two performances so we could do away with the "he only does well against bad teams" excuse, but what's done is done.
Here's the thing about Felix: when he's at his most dominant, you won't necessarily see it in his strikeout rate like you'd expect. You'll see it in his groundballs. I took Felix's 35 career starts and organized them into three groups two times - once by strikeout rate (high, middle, low) and once by groundball rate (high, middle, low). I then calculated his RA (Run Average; like ERA, only including unearned runs) in each group to figure out which component is most vital to his success. Observe:
11 starts with highest K rate (30.7%): 3.72 RA
12 starts with middle K rate (20.4%): 3.09
12 starts with lowest K rate (15.4%): 5.89
11 starts with highest GB rate (75.1%): 1.87 RA
12 starts with middle GB rate (61.7%): 3.27
12 starts with lowest GB rate (44.5%: 8.10
Obviously, Felix needs to miss a few bats; when he's not striking out as many batters as usual, he's getting lit up. But what he doesn't need to do is try to miss as many bats as possible, because if the past is any indication, that kind of approach actually works against him a little bit. Felix is still a good pitcher when he's striking out a bunch of hitters, but that's not the root of his effectiveness.
No, what Felix really needs to concentrate on when he's out on the hill is keeping the ball down in the zone and inducing as many grounders as possible. This is a guy who's been killed by the extra-base hit all year long, elevated fastballs getting smashed off the wall for doubles or over it for homers. Keep the ball down and that won't be a problem anymore. 2% of groundballs go for extra-base hits, while the rate increases to 18% for outfield flies and 21.9% for line drives. If you're a sinkerballer capable of throwing strikes three-fifths of the time, you're going to succeed, because it'll take a lot of work for the opposing offense to push runners across home plate. That's the mindset Felix needs to have when he's pitching, because this whole "strike everyone out all the time" thing just gets him burned way too often.
I know Dave has talked about Felix morphing into a Roy Halladay-type in his prime - a guy who goes out there, settles into an efficient groundball groove for seven innings, and goes for the strikeout when he absolutely needs to - and, to me, that'd be ideal. Felix's raw stuff is so good that he's going to miss a bunch of bats even when he's not trying to, so if he can focus on pitching in the lower half of the zone and keeping people off-balance with a few more breaking balls and changeups, he's perfectly capable of posting a bunch of sub-3 ERA's while still fanning 18-20% of opposing hitters. In other words, he can be the best pitcher in baseball. He still needs to get over his frequent inclination to try and punch everyone out, but we've seen him get into those efficient groundball grooves on a handful of occasions before, so you know the potential's there. As cliche as it sounds, this is all just part of growing up and learning how to pitch. It's up to Felix to decide when he wants to turn into the best pitcher in the league - it obviously wasn't tonight, but it could happen during any one of his starts, and I think that's a big part of why we still get so excited to watch him on the mound. At any moment, he could make that jump for good. We just don't know when it's going to be.
There's only one other thing I really want to address tonight, and that's Adam Jones. The 21 year old has hit a few balls hard, including his first career homer last Thursday, but he's still batting just .217 with 20 strikeouts in 69 at bats. The problem, as I see it, is that the kid just doesn't have any idea how to battle back from being behind in the count to getting something to hit. This was particularly evident last night in his first at bat against Volquez - after falling behind 1-2, Jones fouled off a bunch of pitches out of the zone before finally swinging through another ball for strike three. He thinks that, to protect the plate, he has to swing at everything, and the result is that pitchers have an easy time putting him away once they get ahead.
Take Jones' two walks this year. He didn't work for either one of them; both came after he got ahead 3-0. Think about that for a second - in 71 plate appearances, Adam Jones has yet to work a walk when at least one of the first three pitches he sees is a strike. That's not a problem in and of itself - you don't need to walk a bunch to be a good hitter - but it's evidence that Jones is taking a lousy approach with him to the plate. Discipline for a hitter isn't about taking walks, it's about knowing which pitches you should hit and which pitches you should watch go by. Right now, Adam Jones doesn't have any discipline, and it's making him an easy out. When he falls behind in the count, the only strikes he's seeing are mistakes by the pitcher, and those just don't happen often enough to let Jones succeed. Learning how to work your way back from bad counts is something hitters should pick up in the minors, but since the Mariners rushed Jones through the system so fast they didn't give him a chance, so now it's up to Jeff Pentland to show him how to do it instead. And it's going to take some time.
Jarrod Washburn and Barry Zito tomorrow at 7:05pm PDT as the Mariners travel to Oakland. The current streak against the A's reminded me of a Mitch Hedberg quote:
I'll keep looking for a Hedberg quote that will be appropriate after consecutive loss #38.