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Don't Panic

From Gregg Bell, of SLAM! Sports (I love writing that):

They also want (Felix) to "pitch to contact" more, to let batters put the ball in play on good pitches instead of trying to blow them away for strikeouts.

Hernandez said that was one of the lessons he learned last season, to throw more strikes - even hittable ones.

"He's a smart guy. He understands," Hargrove said.

At first glance, that sounds retarded. Felix is an unbelievable young talent with an unbelievable assortment of unbelievable pitches, the sort of guy who could fall out of bed and strike out Vlad Guerrero on three pitches (or Adam Dunn on two) before so much as putting on a uniform. And the Mariners want him to start letting the hitters make contact? Talk about a waste of ability.

Only, not so much. Long-time readers will recognize the following stats:

14 starts with highest K rate (30.6%): 4.18 RA
14 starts with middle K rate (20.8%): 2.98 RA
15 starts with lowest K rate (15.6%): 5.86 RA

14 starts with highest GB rate (74.0%): 2.13 RA
14 starts with middle GB rate (63.2%): 3.73 RA
15 starts with lowest GB rate (43.9%): 7.70 RA

The message to take out of those six lines is that Felix appears to be at his most dominant not when he's missing the most bats, but when he's inducing the most ground balls. And how does he induce the most groundballs? By getting early swings on two-seam fastballs low in the zone. I suspect there's a fairly large degree of noise in these numbers, given the limited sample size, but nevertheless I think the point remains valid. Felix runs into trouble when he's trying to blow everyone away, leaving the ball up in the zone and becoming vulnerable to long doubles and longer home runs (29% FB rate in his top 14 K% starts; 20% in the other 29). When he's working for grounders, though, he's calm and efficient, a guy who seems to be having too easy a time against the best hitters on the planet. We've all seen him when he settles into his groundball grooves; blink and you'll miss his six-pitch innings. That's who Felix needs to be more often.

Of course, "pitch to contact" doesn't necessarily mean "pitch to groundballs" - just look at Jarrod Washburn, or Ryan Franklin, or Julio Mateo, or Jamie Moyer - but I think both Felix and the coaching staff understand that the best way for him to succeed with more balls in play is to keep them in the infield. With Betancourt and Beltre behind him, it'd be foolish not to take that approach. So, yeah, I have every confidence that, when Hargrove/Chaves say they want Felix to pitch to contact, they mean they want to see him induce a bunch of quick grounders. It makes the most sense.

Beyond that, it's important to realize that inducing more grounders isn't mutually exclusive with posting a high strikeout rate. In Felix's top 14 groundball games, he's also fanned 23.1% of opposing hitters, so one doesn't automatically prevent the other. His stuff is just so good that it'll make hitters miss all on its own. The key is for Felix to learn how to pick his spots - when he should go for a grounder and when he should try to miss a bat. Figure that out and there's no telling how much he can accomplish. After all, the only thing more terrifying than seeing Felix for six or seven innings is watching him conserve his strength and facing him for eight.

Should Felix start pitching smarter in 2007, look out. Even more than you already were, I mean. Because "Roy Halladay with a 40-50% higher strikeout rate" is just a convoluted way of saying "the best pitcher in baseball."