I don't have a real direction I plan to go with this. Or, to put it another way, everything that progresses has a direction, but I don't know what this direction's going to be. Let's find out together. Yesterday afternoon, against the Royals, Felix Hernandez had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Due up were Alcides Escobar and Billy Butler, and while the score was 5-1 Mariners at that point, the Royals had an opening. Where Escobar used to be terrible at hitting, now he is not. Butler most certainly is not. Felix was in his hottest water of the game.
He started Escobar with a wicked slider down and on the outer edge, and Escobar swung and missed. Instantly Felix was in control; he's allowed a .458 OPS after getting ahead 0-and-1. Felix proceeded to strike Escobar out with something that could've been a changeup or a fastball. Sometimes it's impossible to tell. Whatever it was, it was also wicked. If there were a stageplay about Felix, it could be called Wicked, and then it could be sued. Shouldn't have called it that!
Felix's slider to Escobar got me thinking about Felix's slider. Then that got me thinking about the old days, not that there can really be "old days" with Felix. This is Felix's eighth season in the Major Leagues. He's 26 years old. Mark Trumbo is 26 years old. Felix remains shockingly young. But Felix was once a prospect, and he was once a new starting pitcher, and there was a time - as you might recall - that Felix's slider was off-limits.
For his 21st birthday, Felix Hernandez already knows what he wants from the Seattle Mariners.
"My slider," he said.
He misses it. See, Hernandez, who turned 20 a little more than a week ago [...] is not allowed to throw the pitch.
"Hell, yeah, I want to throw that pitch," Hernandez said. "They don't let me, though. They tell my I'm too young, that it's bad for my elbow. I told them I want to throw it."
When Felix was coming up through the minors, his slider was basically theoretical. People liked to say that it was Felix's best weapon, out of all of them. The best pitch in the collection. Felix couldn't throw it. Considering what the Mariners had been through with so many top pitching prospects, it was hard to blame them. Felix would be allowed to unveil his slider eventually if he wanted, but not when he was still young and developing. It could hurt him. He could fall in love with it and use it too often.
It's interesting to look back now and see how it all worked out. Felix is mature now and all the kid gloves are stowed away in the attic, but if you trust the pitch data, he throws about 10-12 percent sliders. The league average this year for starting pitchers is about 13 percent sliders. Felix's slider is very effective, and he likes it against righties, but he doesn't use it too much. He's been as durable as a pitcher can get, with just that little scare in 2007. We can't make any predictions about the future but already I think Felix has been healthier than most observers expected. And by limiting Felix's slider usage early, one supposes the Mariners forced him to further develop his other pitches. To further develop his command. Felix's best pitch now is unquestionably his changeup. That's a rare trait for a starting pitcher who throws hard, with quality breaking balls. Maybe Felix's changeup would've come along anyway, I don't know, but by taking away Felix's favorite weapon, the Mariners got him to improve another.
There's another lesson in the Felix Hernandez experience: after dominating in his initial cup of coffee, he ran into a lot more problems than anyone could've foreseen. He was never by any means bad, but he was less than he should've been, for some time. He only came into himself in 2009, years after he was promoted. Pitchers develop differently from hitters and one player develops differently from another player, but if you want to know how important it is to be patient with young talent, look no further than the Mariners' best player. Felix took time and holy shit has it ever been worth it.
Which isn't to say that all young players work out after their early struggles. Of course they don't. But it isn't always a straight shot to the top. Some of the steepest climbing in the nearby Columbia River Gorge is toward the top of Table Mountain, following the appropriately named Heartbreak Ridge trail. The trail climbs mercilessly through the trees, viewless, and then arrives at a ledge where the summit suddenly appears close enough to touch. The trail subsequently leaves the ledge and re-enters the trees, heading down for a spell before the arduous climbing resumes up a rock slide. The difference between the trail and development is that, with the trail, heading up is unpleasant and heading down is a relief. The commonality is the path.