There is a number of things the Seattle Mariners haven't done yet this offseason.*Josh Hamilton signed not with the Mariners, but with the rival Angels, for a lot of money. Wil Myers was traded not to the Mariners, but to the Rays, for a pitcher and another pitcher. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn are still out there, unsigned and feeling only partially wanted. I saw somebody earlier who looked like he had the flu so that's still a thing. The Mariners have not done a lot -- yet -- in terms of player acquisition, and they also haven't yet gotten one of their own to put pen to paper, if that's how contracts are actually still signed these days.
* once you realize zero is a number this expression loses all meaning
Felix Hernandez is still under Mariners control, for a decent while, but he hasn't yet signed a contract extension. Depending on who you talk to, either talks haven't yet gotten serious, talks got serious and then broke off, or there's nothing to worry about because the Mariners will get this done later on, after the other stuff. Felix is the offseason story people aren't talking about so much because they've been focused on other offseason stories. But Felix is still here and it'd be swell if that continued for years.
This isn't going to be a post about Felix's contract situation, but I needed to get you thinking about Felix before I delved into the body of this article. I'll give you another few moments. Felix! Felix Hernandez! All right. This afternoon, at FanGraphs, I got into a little more pitch-framing stuff or whatever you want to call it. Instead of looking at things from the catcher's perspective, I wanted to look at things a little more from the pitcher's perspective. So I looked at pitchers who, between 2008-2012, threw at least 400 innings as starters, or 200 innings as relievers. Then, using PITCHf/x plate-discipline data available at FanGraphs, I calculated the difference between their actual strikes and their "expected" strikes. I calculated those results per 1,000 called pitches.
The league average for starters was -18, and not zero. That is, within the sample, the average starting pitcher got 18 fewer strikes than he "deserved", per 1,000 called pitches. The league leader between 2008-2012 is Derek Lowe, at an incredible 71 strikes above average per 1,000. The anti-league leader is Justin Masterson, at -52. And right above Masterson, ranking 138th out of 139, is Felix Hernandez, at -35. Masterson has him beat, by a wide margin, but everybody else in there has Felix beat. Felix has not gotten the benefit of a generous strike zone. Felix has not gotten the benefit of a normal strike zone, even.
You see something like that and your first response is, "so, on talent, Felix is even better." Probably not in those precise words but in words not dissimilar from those words. An alternate view is maybe Felix hasn't learned where not to try to throw the ball, maybe he hasn't learned where umpires miss the most calls, but then a missed strike is a missed strike and you shouldn't blame a pitcher for an umpire's poor rule interpretation. We're left with three hypotheses:
Felix has gotten screwed by bad framers and, thus, bad umpires
I looked at this data, also, on the team scale. Again, 2008-2012, combined starters and relievers. The league average, overall, has been 19 fewer strikes than expected per 1,000 called pitches. The Braves have led the way, at +34. Behind them, the Brewers, at +21. Then the Reds, at +20. At the other end of the scale, we find the Pirates at -20, and the Indians at -21. Worst out of everyone are the Mariners, at -24. Over the past five years, the Mariners might've had the league's worst pitch-receivers.This, of course, isn't a new idea. This is just a new number to put to an old, established idea.
When you pitch to poor pitch-receivers, you get poor pitch-receiving. Anecdotally, we can also all recall several instances in which Felix didn't get a borderline strike, or a low strike that wasn't even on the edge. Anecdotal evidence is stupid worthless evidence, but our impressions also mean this mathematical result doesn't come as a surprise.
Felix is just unusually difficult to catch and call
Have you seen the guy's fucking pitches? If we were hanging out and I asked you to make a face like you were vomiting your own testicles, you wouldn't know what to do. That's the face that every catcher and every umpire must make every time Felix so much as attempts a pick-off throw. He throws hard and his hard throws have insane, sometimes unpredictable movement, and that's why it might be a little easier to frame and call a Livan Hernandez than a Felix Hernandez. It shouldn't be like that, but it could be like that for as long as balls and strikes are determined by humans who don't like getting hit by things. In this event, wicked stuff would compensate for missed calls by being wicked stuff. You accept the occasional missed strike as a necessary consequence of a pitcher being almost too talented.
Both of the above
The Mariners have been below-average at pitch-receiving. And among those same Mariners, Felix's results are still worse than the team mean. Many calls have been missed with Felix on the mound. A fraction of those calls were because the catcher or umpire did something wrong. The remainder of those calls were because the catcher or umpire did something wrong, and also the pitch was particularly insane. You can only blame the catcher and umpire so much. Felix might throw a few more strikes with an automated strike zone, but that's not what we've got, and it's not like this is a phenomenon that's preventing Felix from being one of the best pitchers in the world. Felix is one of the best pitchers in the world!
Of note: between 2008-2010, Felix was about 41 strikes below average per 1,000 called pitches. Between 2011-2012, he was about half that. Still well below average, but half as below average, which is something. This might be the nicest thing I'll ever say about Miguel Olivo's defense.
In closing, between 2008-2012, 26 different Mariners pitched at least 100 innings. In terms of the called strike zone, the least fortunate was actually Luke French, 15 strikes below Felix. Thankfully French had the powerful repertoire to mitigate the effects of such human-error shenanigans.