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The Derivative of Felix Hernandez

We know that Felix is as great as he ever was. So why doesn't it always feel that way?

a better way than most
a better way than most

Once upon a time, I worked in a summer camp. And one day during this enjoyable phase in my professional career, one of the girls noticed that the water I served them had been supplied (heaven forbid) from a metal faucet. Hounded by cries of intolerable cruelty, I instituted a blind taste test. After cups of tap and bottled water I scrounged up everything I could find, including generic and brand-name cola, wafers, and Skittles. It turned into a fun activity, at least for me.

The results of this pseudo-scientific experimentation: the kids were really terrible at tasting things. The bottled water test came out exactly fifty-fifty, as one might expect. Some of the kids picked wafer flavors that I not only hadn't given them, but which did not exist. Only four of the thirty children sampled were able to accurately pick the color of the Skittle he or she had eaten, a lower rate than if they had all chosen red. I feel comfortable extending this survey to all of humankind and extending the following hypothesis: people are generally terrible at measuring things.

I don't mean this in a pejorative way: we're just not equipped to know how things are. We walk into a room and we can tell if it's warm or cold, but our guesses would be pretty useless past that point. But after a while, our supposedly superior human trait of adaptability gets in our way; we get used to the temperature, and stop noticing it. We acclimate. We're better, as a species, at noticing changes in a quality rather than measuring that quality itself, but even then if the change is subtle enough we can look right past it.

The reason for this meandering introduction is to talk about Felix Hernandez. Felix Hernandez is a really great pitcher, has been and will remain so. He's one of those sources of goodness that philosophers and self-help gurus agree in requiring reflection. We can't take for granted the sunrise or the laugh of a child, nor can we afford to get used to Felix. We have to engage in spiritual exercises and search for new ways to appreciate him. Felix demands this of us as fans, our pittance for the right to watch him every five days.

The trouble is that, as previously mentioned, we're bad at this. And so we have situations like 2013, where it feels like Felix is having a slightly disappointing year. There are hundreds of ways of testing and measuring this theory scientifically, just like we can test the temperature of the aforementioned room with a thermometer. Mr. Adam H. Wong has, in fact, already done so, and impeccably. But from an irrational, human standpoint, I'd argue that the numbers may not be persuasive enough. In this light I present a numberless graph Felix's greatness over time, one that would look like a slightly right-skewed normal distribution:


Young, talented pitchers often start off with blazing fastballs and inconsistent control, then learn and hone their craft at a rate that is hopefully proportional to a decay in natural ability. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way, and you get a Clayton Kershaw or a Tim Lincecum. But Felix's career path has followed the general rule pretty well, and his 2013 numbers, as noted, aren't particularly different from his Cy Young season.

So why do they feel lesser, somehow? What drives this faulty narrative? It's because fans, when watching a team day by day and year by year, don't measure a player's overall greatness; like the example of the temperature, they detect the change in a player's greatness. In terms of high school math, they feel the derivative of Felix's career path and not the path itself. And when you look at that new graph, it looks like this:


The derivative, for those who need brushing up on their pre-calc, measures the slope of a line rather than the line itself. Felix started off his career by rapidly improving and eventually reaching his potential. In layman's terms: It's not that Felix is performing at a lower rate than he used to; it's that he's improving at a lower rate. After watching him at 19 flash such potential, and at 23 conquer the league, we have a star player who has no more room to grow. This is what we'll get. Granted, what we get is one of the greatest pitchers in the game and, if he continues to disappoint at his current rate, a clear Hall of Famer.

As a man approaching his mid-thirties, I know this feeling painfully well. Every time I go running, or pick up particularly heavy box, I instantly feel how much harder it is than it used to be. Compared to my future, crumbling self, I remain a paragon of virility and might, and I intuitively know this, but it's not something I can make myself feel. I don't appreciate the sliver of athletic ability that remains. It's the sort of unconscious, untargeted cynicism that could be associated with Mariners fandom.

Thus the spiritual exercises, the strings we mentally tie on our finger to remind us, force us to appreciate continually. And honestly, the Mariners community is actually really good at that. We have our King's Court and our Sunshine and Lollipops. It's still fairly easy at this point. But for those on the outside, who do not engage in these rituals, they may genuinely feel like something is amiss. Be gentle with such people. Help them out.

As we saw with Ichiro five years ago, however, it gets more difficult to appreciate over time. Age weighs down on players and fans alike. It gets all too easy to take greatness for granted, especially greatness wasted, mired in losing seasons. Let's hope we can appreciate Felix in the proper context, and soon.