Okay, yeah, so we just lost to the Royals on Felix Day. That in and of itself is a point of disgrace. But you know what? I'm having trouble trying to care, because as embarrassing as it was on paper to lose this game, Felix is back, and let me tell you - that was the longest two and a half weeks of the season. This team is just godawful to watch in his absence. I guess Mariner fandom without Felix is fandom of which I'm not prepared to be a part.
This isn't hyperbole, either; with Felix on the DL, it was a chore to come home every day and boot up MLB.tv. There was just so little reason to bother, and it was all I could do to pay attention for more than a few batters at a time. But with Felix back, the whole sense of baseball as entertainment returned as well, and for the first time in weeks I kept myself glued with more than just passing interest. This wasn't a game I felt obligated to watch - this was a game I wanted to watch, and if you're someone who ever checks out the game threads, I think it's pretty clear that the community felt the same way. This was Felix. No matter the circumstances, Felix is always worthy of commanding your attention.
What is it about Felix that's so captivating, anyway? It's not the likelihood of a Mariner win, because there are games this team wins that literally make people upset. Given the whole idea behind the Strasburg Sweepstakes, it seems like wins are often the furthest thing from anyone's mind. So it's an interesting question. Gun to my head, I'd guess it's derived from the thrill of watching someone who at any point in time is capable of leaving his opponent outright embarrassed. This is the highest level of baseball in the world, and to think that there are a select few people out there who can make one of the 750 best players on the planet look like he's never played before in his life...those people are a treat to watch, and we've been granted the privilege of having one of our own. Watching Felix isn't about watching the Mariners come away victorious. It's about watching a guy do things with swagger and ease that others can barely imagine.
I could be wrong. It's a late night at the end of a long week, and I'd be lying if I said I've given this a lot of thought. But whatever the reason may be behind Felix's appeal, everyone's aware of it, and it carries sufficient weight to make every Felix Day feel just a little bit special. And that's something I couldn't stand to be without.
Welcome back, Felix. We missed you. More than you could ever know.
Biggest Contribution: Cesar Jimenez, +3.7%
Biggest Suckfest: Raul Ibanez, -11.4%
Most Important AB: Betancourt single, +6.5%
Most Important Pitch: DeJesus double, -16.4%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -2.9%
Total Contribution by Lineup: -47.1%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
(What is this chart?)
What's truly incredible is the extent to which Felix was back back despite his extended rest. Now, of course, I will issue the necessary qualifier that this was only the Royals (just as one could issue the qualifier for Hochevar that this was only the Mariners), but for four innings, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a more dominant appearance by the King. His numbers for those first four frames:
1 fly ball
1 line drive
69% strikes (37/54)
8 swinging strikes
He had that lethal combination of fastball command and biting slider, and when Felix is in that sort of groove, hitters just don't stand a chance. My particular favorite pitch was a 96mph 2-2 sinker he threw down and in to Mark Teahen in the fourth, a pitch located so perfectly that it didn't even need its sharp late break. The movement was just gravy.
For four innings, Felix was just mowing his way through a lineup that was five-ninths left-handed. He made but a single mistake - hanging an inside changeup to Mike Aviles that got lined for a double - and everything else was thrown with both good intent and good execution. No one could register a single complaint about how Felix was working; all we could do was sit back and enjoy the show, and enjoy it we did. This was an extended glimpse Felix at his peak. Matter of fact, we've been seeing those glimpses more and more often. But anyway.
The fifth inning sucked, though. Incapable of scoring so much as a single run to that point against Luke Hochevar, the offense was already making us nervous about Felix's chances for a win when he decided to start making things interesting. Looking back, Grudzielanek's leadoff fly out should've tipped us off that something was up. Felix disposed of Alex Gordon rather easily, but with two outs and none on, he went ahead and got himself into trouble by hanging a change to Ross Gload and then walking John Buck in a plate appearance in which all four balls might've missed the zone by a combined six inches.
With two on, you'd have thought that Joey Gathright would provide a reprieve, but instead he got a first pitch thigh-high fastball that he lined back up the middle to plate the game's first run. David DeJesus then came up and drilled maybe the loudest foul ball Felix has allowed in his career. On the one hand, a foul home run is nothing but a foul ball, but on the other, it's not really indicative of a skill on the pitcher's part to keep a bomb just to the side of the pole, and those things always serve to make me nervous. It's like when an opponent hits the goalpost in hockey. Sure, it doesn't count for anything, but it also means that your goalie got beat, and that's a terrifying situation.
Perhaps flustered, Felix then uncorked a massively wild pitch to the backstop, and after several more phases of the battle he left a slider out over the plate that DeJesus punished in Ichiro's direction. The ball might've been catchable, but Ichiro broke in before realizing that the ball had more carry than he thought, and by the time he doubled back it was too late to make a play. DeJesus' double widened the lead by another two, and at that point I don't think anyone had any confidence in the Mariner lineup to stage a comeback.
That was just a bad pitch. In fact, Felix only really made two bad pitches all game, but they both wound up going for doubles. What's interesting is that the pitches Aviles and DeJesus hit were unusual pitches for the situation. Aviles hit a 1-0 changeup - weird for a righty to throw to a righty - and DeJesus hit a 1-2 slider - weird for a righty to throw to a lefty. Don't get me wrong, Felix is pretty good about burying his slider against lefties to serve as a strikeout pitch, but the one he threw DeJesus was too far out and too far elevated, with predictable results. If that pitch is another six inches down and in, it's a whole different ballgame, but instead Felix wound up paying dearly for his mistake. While Ichiro should've made a better play on the ball, Felix should've made a better pitch.
Felix would retire Aviles to end the inning, but the damage was done, and so was his start - despite Felix's objections, Riggleman yanked him at 83 pitches, not wanting to put too much stress on his body on the heels of a trip to the DL. In all, it was a hell of a return, but I'm sure all Felix can think about right now is how he should've had a better fifth. That's how pitchers work. They're conditioned from a young age to have a longer memory for mistakes than for successes, and for as many excellent pitches as Felix threw tonight, the ones that'll stick are the ones that he regrets. For better or for worse.
It's worth noting that the fifth inning may have been the result of fatigue on Felix's part, as he hadn't had a full start since June 17th. The rule of thumb is that tired Felix starts to elevate the ball, and if you look at the PITCHf/x data, his average fastball came in at a height of 2.3 feet through innings 1-4 and 3.0 feet in #5. That's a pretty significant difference. I don't know how much it means, but I would be more comforted to know that, instead of just having a bad inning, Felix was tired. Bad innings are bad innings. Stamina can be developed, especially when you've lost a fair bit due to injury. It'll be interesting to look for when/if he starts to elevate the ball over his next few starts to see if he's building his arm strength back up to where it was a month ago.
Anyway, once Felix came out, my level of interest sank through the floor. The Mariners scored a run, but they didn't score three, meaning that Felix wound up on the hook for the loss, dropping his record to 6-6 despite a sub-3 ERA. I don't care about these things, but Felix does, so I can't just blow them off. This is a man who just wants to win, and it has to be more than a little demoralizing to know that you pitched that well and still earned yourself a loss to the Royals by making two or three mistakes.
But the important thing is, he's back. He's back, and for four innings, he looked outstanding.
It's something to build on.