To a whole lot of people out there (and you know who you are) - I apologize.
I apologize for adopting the 'King Felix' nickname and trying to cram it down your throats. I apologize for refusing to listen to your arguments regarding why Felix may not be the best pitcher in the league. I apologize for suggesting that Felix had officially arrived, and that his start in Boston was only the beginning. I apologize for making him out to be an immediate spectacle. More than anything, I apologize for being so stubborn.
It has become abundantly clear to me over the past several weeks that Felix just isn't who I thought he was. He's still an extraordinary talent with better stuff than any other starter in baseball, he's still the #1 hope for the future of the franchise, and he's still going to become one of the best pitchers any of us has ever seen by the time it's all said and done, but right now, in the present day, he's a mediocrity with a high ceiling. We keep coming back every five days to see if he's ready to climb to the next level, but like many young players, Felix is taking his time.
Felix is a kid starting his second full season in the Majors at an age where many of his peers are just hoping to reach AA. He's going to hit his rough patches and make his mistakes as he figures out what it takes to succeed at this level. Bottom line, Felix is human. It's not that this diminishes his status that much; it's just that what makes this tough to swallow is that we've spent so much time believing that he was somehow something better than that.
To a whole lot of people out there, I apologize for handing Felix a crown before he was ready. I don't apologize for what he's going to do to your teams once he finally earns it, but that's down the road. For now, you were right. Our king is still but an heir to an empty throne.
Biggest Contribution: Ichiro, +7.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Felix Hernandez, -21.3%
Most Important At Bat: Ballgame homers!, +12.0%
Most Important Pitch: Lamb homers, -16.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -21.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -28.8%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
In retrospect I suppose I shouldn't have come into this series so overconfident, but really, how would I have known better? It wasn't so much that the Mariners were playing well as it was that the Astros weren't, having lost four of their last five and, uh, 39 of their last 66. They came in with a few guys who can hit and a lot more who can't, a bad defense missing the greatest glove of our generation, and a pitching staff whose big upside is the ability to let beat writers use puns like "Astros Wave Magic Wand," "Stepping Back Off The Lidge," and "Williams Gives Manager Garner A Woody." (sorry for that) Houston just looked like a really bad team, and a good place for the Mariners to forget about their recent one-run losses against another weak opponent.
So, naturally, it didn't go like we hoped. We didn't even have to wait for Felix to throw a pitch before we realized it was going to be one of those games; Jose Guillen's textbook 6-4-3 in the first got the message across on its own. Then Felix came out and made clear what we feared, that this was going to be another lost three hours that should've been spent doing something less stupid. He threw a bunch more predictable fastballs, making one good pitch when he induced Pence into a double play but still getting hammered for three hits. Biggio's wasn't much, but Berkman's double was destroyed, as was the following single that Carlos Lee hit up the middle on a slider that barely broke. Felix was saved when Ichiro gunned down Berkman at the plate, but once again, for the billionth start in a row, Felix demonstrated before our eyes the he still doesn't know how to pitch.
Even worse than the bad pitch selection in the first is that the bad pitch selection in the first was completely identical to the first eight pitches of Felix's previous start in San Diego. If Felix's big problem is predictability, then how is repeating pitch sequences going to make him any better? I'm so God damned sick of talking about this, but I can't help it, because the minute I stop blasting Felix and the Mariners for these pitches is the minute I'll feel like I've given up. If you talk to somebody in the organization they'll tell you the problem isn't Felix's selection, but rather his fastball command. But while his fastball command could be a lot better, that doesn't change the fact that the fastball is still his worst pitch, and something that he should be throwing far less often than he does. How in the world does an organization sit back and watch hitters smash Felix's fastball and swing through his offspeed stuff, and decide that the best way out is to throw more fastballs? I don't understand. I don't understand. Obviously Felix has to be held responsible for some of this, but it's the coaching staff that ultimately determines how they want him to pitch, and this is their solution. Or rather, this is still their solution, even after countless demonstrations of why it's retarded.
If you've ever needed proof that this organization just doesn't have a single freaking clue how to evaluate pitchers, or what to do with them once they're on the roster, just look at Felix. The guy has the greatest repertoire on the planet, but rather than celebrate the awesomeness of three of his pitches, the coaching staff chooses instead to focus on the inconsistency of one of them. It absolutely just boggles the mind. I mean, God, when's the last time the Mariners actually helped a pitcher out? They didn't teach JJ Putz the splitter - that was Eddie Guardado. They didn't teach Brandon Morrow to go out there throwing unhittable gas - that was JJ Putz. They didn't teach Gil Meche to achieve his potential - that was Kansas City. They didn't teach Matt Thornton to throw consistent strikes - that was Chicago. They didn't teach Joel Pineiro to dominate right-handed hitters at a young age - that was steroids. And so on and so forth. Where are the success stories? What reasons do we have to believe that the people in charge of this team's arms have any God damn idea what they're doing? The only reason Felix has even made it this far is because his raw stuff is that good. God knows he isn't getting any help now that he's really struggling for the first time in his life. The problem seems readily apparent to us, but the team disagrees, and while ordinarily that'd seem like a time to give the coaches the benefit of the doubt, perhaps here it's more an issue of the team being run by idiots.
After the Mariners got shut out again in the top of the second, Felix came back out and promptly got himself into more trouble, striking out three batters looking but surrendering an RBI double to Mike Lamb on a four-seam fastball that couldn't have been any more centered over the plate. The strikeouts, you ask? Offspeed stuff. The hits? Not offspeed stuff. I suppose at this point that probably went without saying.
Then things settled down for a while, as the Mariners continued not touching this eight year old-looking princess on the mound and Felix shifted away from the fastball-heavy selection like he does in the middle innings of every start. He always comes out throwing a bunch of four-seamers and then mixing it up a little better as the game goes along. It should come as no surprise, then, that his OPS against in the first inning is .907, while his OPS against the rest of the time is .754. He ran into trouble in the fourth when an RBI single by Brad Ausmus plated the Astros' second run, but it was a lucky knock, a roller that would've been tailor-made double play ball were it hit a few feet in either direction. It was one of those annoying bad luck runs that Felix seems to give up way too often, but then maybe the luck won't change until Felix does. Throw more curveballs, Felix, and maybe fortune will be on your side for once.
Felix was at his best in the fifth, when he only needed ten pitches to make Houston's 2-3-4 of Pence/Berkman/Lee look like pathetic little kids. The wonders of throwing slower than 94. Of course, by this point we were thinking less about Felix and more about when our freaking offense was going to show up, since Wandy Rodriguez had retired 11 Mariners in a row, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
And that's when Willie came to the plate for quite possibly the most memorable at bat of his career. Ahead in the count 2-0, Willie went after a fastball over the heart of the plate and sent a towering bomb to straightaway center that eluded Pence's outstretched glove and rolled up the hill, settling by the base of the flag pole that's eventually going to get somebody killed. With Willie's speed, the height of his fly ball, and the depth of center field in the stadium, we were all thinking the same thing as soon as the ball rolled up the hill, and sure enough Carlos Garcia waved Willie around third for what turned out to be a really easy inside-the-parker. Even though no defense in the world would've been able to throw him out, Willie still did a bellyflop slide on home plate, becoming the first Mariner this season to get his uniform dirty on a home run.
I've been trying, but I can't think of a more appropriate way for Willie to make an impact. That play really did capture each and every one of his alleged good qualities - speed, contact, gap power, sparkplug, hustle...everything was right there, all at once. Willie's like Frank Grimes if Frank Grimes got his balls washed by the local media every three weeks. Just think about their respective work ethics. An inside-the-park home run is Willie busting his ass to do something that comes far easier to the people around him. It really is the one highlight that perfectly lays out what so many people think he is.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be all we'd get, and Felix stepped on our balls with golf cleats almost as quickly as he could when he gave Mike Lamb an 88mph...something...right over the center of the plate on an 0-2 count. I don't know if it was a bad changeup or a worse slider, but whatever it was, you couldn't have drawn up a worse 0-2 pitch if you tried. In a flash the Mariners trailed 4-1, all the good vibes from Felix's strong fifth inning were washed away, and we just sat here waiting for the loss to become official. Three innings later, it finally did.
We've already talked about the pitch selection thing - it's unforgivably stupid, and the biggest reason for why Felix's ERA is in the 4's instead of the 2's. But today there was another issue, too: Felix's stuff didn't look as consistently sharp as we've gotten used to seeing. The pitch selection's been bad for more than a year now, but it's not like last season he was giving up 12 hits a game. That was a byproduct of Felix having a really bad slider tonight. His curveball was mostly there and his change was okay, but the slider flat-out sucked. Combine this with Felix working a few miles below the fastball he flashed in April and you've got reason to be concerned about his arm.
Gun to my head, I think Felix is still worried about his injury. I think he's still battling a sensation in his elbow, and because he doesn't want to make things worse and really screw himself up, he's kind of favoring it and being careful not to put too much stress on it. I don't think he's "pitching hurt" any more than JJ was coming out of ST, but I think there's a big psychological issue there that's keeping Felix from charging ahead 100%. Unfortunately, if this is the case, I don't know how to get Felix to work out of it, because the only way to know that you can do something is to do it. What I mean is, Felix won't know if he can throw max effort again until he tries to throw max effort, at which point he either breaks something or passes with flying colors.
The kid is enormously self-confident, but this isn't like someone challenging his masculinity - this is an issue that requires a different kind of confidence, the likes of which Felix has never had to have before in his life. If you've never hurt your arm before, and then you do, you're going to be pretty tentative in the aftermath, since no pitcher's going to needlessly endanger one of the two or three most critical joints in his body.
This is all just speculation, and I could easily be wrong, but that's my current hypothesis. And if it's true, then it's on Felix to decide when he's finally ready to resume throwing at 100%, instead of this 80-90% stuff that's gotten him into so much trouble. Only he knows when that's going to be. I long for the days where all I had to be concerned about was Felix's pitch selection.
Cha Baek and Woody Williams tomorrow at 4:05pm. If you took Felix's stuff and Baek's pitch selection, you'd have an unbelievable arm. If you took Baek's stuff and Felix's pitch selection, you'd have a guy who really sucks. Which one of those two pitchers would fare better against our lineup? I can't believe I don't actually know the answer to that.