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Community Projection: Felix

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The eleventh in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)

LL/USSM Community: 206.1 IP, 3.74 RA, 3.31 FIP (n=113)
Actual Line: 190.1 IP, 4.16 RA, 3.71 FIP

Closest Projection: natebracy, 4.16 RA, 3.68 FIP

In the end, it turned out to be an optimistic projection, but not because people overestimated Felix's ability to throw strikes and miss bats; no, it was optimistic because the majority of people figured that Felix would get over his peculiar BABIP and home run/fly ball rates of 2006. You'll notice that the community's projected FIP of 3.31 closely matches Felix's actual 2007 xFIP of 3.41. That means the peripherals were pretty much right on, and that the reason we ran into trouble is that Felix did not, in fact, get over his peculiar BABIP and home run/fly ball rates of 2006. Only five of you predicted a higher HR/9 than the one Felix went on the post, and only one of you predicted a higher H/9. Neat season.

(Of course, projecting strikeout and walk numbers is really easy, while hit and home run rates tend to be all over the place, rendering pitcher forecasts a nigh impossible task, but whatever, we might as well try.)

It's kind of a shame the way Felix's season turned out, considering the memorable way in which it began. His performance against Oakland on Opening Day was nothing short of total domination - he struck out twelve while allowing one line drive and zero fly balls - and as if that weren't already enough, he came back in his second start on eight days' rest and spun seven innings of no-hit ball against the Red Sox on hostile turf in Daisuke Matsuzaka's much-publicized home debut. (This author in particular was thrilled.) If the first start caught people's attention in the Northwest, the second start caught people's attention around the world, and it truly felt like, at last, The King had arrived to claim his throne. What else was there to say? Statistically, Felix's two early appearances held up as two of the top 25 starts in the Majors all season long (as ranked by Game Score), and visually, he looked completely untouchable. Seattle Mariners baseball was about to enter a new era, and each of us was more than prepared for the ride.

Then Felix got hurt.

It's impossible for words to do justice to the feeling we all had when Felix walked off the mound with Rick Griffin that day in April. There's the level of upset where you get a little agitated, and the level of upset where you curse and throw a tantrum, but this was the level of upset where you remain completely silent and think about crying. If it were Beltre, or Putz, or even Ichiro who got hurt, we would've been depressed, but we would've managed. With Felix, though, everyone was left in emotional tatters. How do you deal when the #1 hope for the organization's present and future hurts his arm in the tenth game of the year? How do you handle watching a guy go from lord and savior to medical patient in the span of one week? It was a deep, unyielding pain, and enough to make me distance myself from the team for several days until news of an optimistic prognosis began to spread. Felix wouldn't need surgery, and he'd be back in a few weeks. I've never felt such relief.

After a few delays, Felix was penciled in for a May 15th return, and the fan base waited with bated breath to see how he'd respond to the time off. The answer: not too well. In 3.2 innings against the Angels, Felix allowed ten to reach base and three to score before mercifully getting yanked. Ever the positive thinkers when it comes to our phenom, though, we wrote it off as a necessary re-adjustment to live action, and looked ahead to his game five days later against the Padres. Surely, that was when he'd return to form.

It wasn't. And it kind of stayed like that for the rest of the year, as Felix never quite got back to who he was in the beginning of April. To be sure, there were spectacular efforts like his owning of the Rangers at the end of September, but there were also a bunch of lowlights, like his start against the Angels during the never-to-be-mentioned-again Lollablueza festival in August. "Frustrating" and "inconsistent" get thrown around all the time in describing Felix's season as a whole, but they don't really capture the spirit of the thing. Adrian Beltre is frustrating. Miguel Batista is inconsistent. Felix Hernandez was something else, something greater. Even with all the complications, it was just tough to be real thrilled with a guy like that ending the year with an ERA around four. It shouldn't have happened like that. His first two starts were too special, too extraordinary to be associated with the 27 that followed. It felt like the injury interrupted what should've been an historic campaign, and there's nothing quite like wondering what could've been with someone this talented.

Truth be told, the injury was a huge factor. After coming back from the DL, Felix altered his delivery in fear of getting hurt again, and it took a toll on his repertoire. His velocity stayed around the same place but his pitches lost some of their sharp movement, which dropped his arsenal from "inhuman" to merely "really good". And we weren't used to "really good", not from Felix. It seemed like something was missing, and the results backed that feeling up.

The good news is that, over time, things got better. As Felix put more distance between himself and the injury, he started to trust his body more and more, and his mechanics gradually crept back to normal. In Felix's first nine starts after coming off the DL, he put up a 5.26 ERA. In the remaining 18, it was 3.70. As the two-seamer returned as a more consistent weapon, Felix was able to put people away earlier in at bats and generally become a more effective pitcher. After all, it's a lot easier to succeed on the mound when your bread and butter pitch is actually doing what you want it to. It all fittingly came together in game 162, when Felix bookended the year with virtually identical outings. If nothing else, it was nice of him to send us into the offseason on a happy note.

Still, as nice as it was to see Felix kind of work his way back into shape after the injury, questions do remain, and nearly all of them have to do with the fact that a guy as talented as Felix shouldn't be that hittable. He's allowed more hits than innings pitched in each of the last two seasons, and over the same period of time no other pitcher in baseball has a higher HR/fly ball (using the THT park adjustment). This is absurd, and it shouldn't be happening. What's the reason? Everyone's best guess, at this point, is that Felix's pitching education is still a work in progress. Keep in mind that this is a guy who blew through every level he saw and made it to the Majors basically on stuff alone. He's 21 years old, and it hasn't been long that he's faced the best batters on the planet, batters who can keep up with his fastball and identify offspeed stuff out of his hand. Felix is still learning how to get them out. It's incredibly annoying when you see him make a stupid mistake and offer up a meatball when he's ahead in the count (half of his homers allowed came with two strikes, as opposed to a 30% league average), but it's part of the process, and all we can hope for is that each and every error in judgment or execution gets turned into a lesson. This isn't going to go on forever. There's no reason why it should. Eventually it's going to click, and everything will be peachy.

The other big question with Felix concerns his handling of left-handed hitters. He allowed them to put up an .858 OPS in 2007, after an .819 season in 2006. Without performing any kind of thesis-level study (since I don't have the resources), I have to believe this relates directly to the inconsistency of his changeup. A good change is almost necessary for a starting pitcher to be effective against opposite-handed bats, and Felix hasn't flashed a consistent one for two years. It's easy to spot when it's on, but too frequently it's off, and that plays no small part in contributing to Felix's difficulties. If he can really improve his two-seamer to the point where it's diving around every game, then that'd be enough to mitigate the problem, but honestly, he needs to improve his change unless he wants to battle this issue for the rest of his career.

These would be big problems for a 26 or 29 year old, someone who should've already theoretically come into his prime. Felix Hernandez is 21. Every time you find yourself frustrated with his development, read this post. As annoying as he can be sometimes, Felix is way ahead of the curve. He's going to shape up, he's going to get over the statistical anomalies, and he's going to be one of, if not the best pitcher in franchise history. I don't think it's a matter of "if". The Leap is coming, and one of these days we're no longer going to consider the Fenway game to be the high point of Felix's career. And knowing that this day is somewhere on the horizon is one of the only reasons I still allow myself to get so emotionally invested in this team, because when it comes, it's all going to be so, so worth it.

Now dammit, Felix, quit throwing that mystery pitch.