Early in his career, Felix Hernandez was often guilty of employing a simplistic approach on the mound. It was a shame, because his stuff was present from day one: Felix regularly unleashed fastballs in the upper nineties, snapped wicked sliders and spun tight, hard curveballs: The changeup? Well, the changeup wasn't always there, but his best ones were as hellish as those of recent vintage.
Frustratingly, his overall results lagged behind what his right arm was capable of producing, undone by bad command and a strong-headed, throw-everything-through-a-brick-wall mentality. There were still plenty of gems: Felix's one-hitter in Boston stands out, and his twelve strikeout performance on Opening Day as a twenty year old was certainly impressive. But with some of the nastiest stuff in the league, his overall numbers were underwhelming. Too often, he wound up in trouble because of poor sequencing, and a predictable diet of fastballs led to early deficits.
There were many facets behind Felix's transformation from thrower to pitcher. He grew up, his changeup improved, and his command jumped a grade. Critically, Felix also began pitching much smarter. He started throwing his offspeed pitches early in games and he did a better job of planning how to get specific hitters out. In so many ways, Felix matured right before our eyes. Now, at twenty-nine years old, Felix is in the prime of his career. His arsenal is as good as ever, and as a pitcher, he blends the competitiveness of youth with the guile of a ten-year veteran. Tonight, it was all on display. Those of us who saw the game were privileged to observe the American League's best pitcher attack a lineup incapable of solving his tremendous stuff and intelligent plan of attack.
Early on though, it was fair to wonder if the Blue Jays would get to Felix. The Rogers Centre has been a house of horrors for the King, as two of his last three Canadian starts ended in disaster: he couldn't escape the fifth in either game, allowing at least seven runs before departing in each of the blowout losses. Toronto started strong again tonight. Edwin Encranacion tugged a high homer to left field in the first, and Chris Colabello led off the second with a hard single into left. Kevin Pillar followed with a rocket down the third base line, and for an instant, I worried that this would turn into one of those games. Fortunately, Kyle Seager snared the hard liner and fired to first in time for a quick out and, from Toronto's perspective, a particularly cruel double play.
From there, Hernandez settled into a groove, his entire pitch mix proving effective against a feeble Blue Jays lineup devoid of Josh Donaldson. Felix's two-seam fastball darted so much that Brooks Baseball classified it as a sinker, and he used the pitch's late break to generate eleven groundouts. He induced a total of seventeen whiffs, ten of which came on the changeup. Anecdotally, his stuff was even more impressive. Ezequiel Carrera swung over a fastball, whiffing at the pitch like it was a changeup. That bears mentioning again: Felix can make a ninety-two mile per hour fastball look like a changeup. He can also make a changeup look like death.
But what really impressed me about Felix was his approach. Here's Felix pitching to Jose Bautista in the sixth:
That first pitch was a buckling curve, for reference. Next up, Encarnacion:
Nothing to hit, really, in either at-bat. Now, contrast that with what everybody else got to see:
There's a noticeable gap in the middle-up danger area of the zone, but for the most part, Felix was willing to give you a hittable pitch, provided your name wasn't Encarnacion or Bautista. Once he got the lead, Felix stayed away from the only guys who could hurt him while challenging everybody else to beat his stuff. It was a great game plan, and he walked away with a deserved victory, allowing just one run and four hits while striking out eight in seven innings.
Offensively, the Mariners were good enough. Marco Estrada doesn't have the world's most intimidating offerings, but he throws a decent change up, and the M's lefty heavy lineup struggled with it, whiffing a quarter of the time they saw the pitch.
The M's got on the board in the third when Logan Morrison "tripled" home two runs. I put that in quotation marks because it would have been a single if Colabello hadn't tried to crack Sportscenter's Top 10:
Mike Zunino doubled home Morrison, and the Mariners picked up their final run in the sixth, on Nelson Cruz's 17th homer:
The Blue Jays made it interesting in the ninth, when Colabello atoned for his defensive miscue with a two run homer off of the struggling-but-barely-good-enough-right-now Fernando Rodney. Rodney escaped, thanks to a nice tag on a bunt from Morrison and a flyout from Donaldson. The win brought the Mariners back to .500 on the trip and back to three games under .500 on the season.
- Toronto's turf has come under some scrutiny this season, and we got a first hand look at why. Think of how slick a normal turf surface is. And then look at what happened to Nelson Cruz's hard line drive to right field:
I've seen a few high schools with turf like this, but I've never seen a ball do anything like that on a major league field before.
- Welington Castillo walked. He walks slightly less than the average player, although far more often than most Dominicans do (if you haven't read 'Finding a way to walk off the island' by Jorge Arangure you really should). He's a significantly better hitter than Zunino at this point, and it will be interesting to see whether this turns into a job share at some point.
- In the fifth, Aaron and Mike recalled a discussion they had last summer with Braves broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton about Felix. Aaron recalled Sutton saying Felix "is the type of guy that, if you give him a lead, I don't think he's going to give it back, and the other team probably knows it." It's not really worth getting into, but this is the type of 1940's-analytical-crap that led to sites like Fire Joe Morgan in the first place. Of course, Felix is the type of pitcher who doesn't cough up a lead very often! WPA demonstrates that most pitchers can hang on to even a slight lead. Felix's ability to maintain an advantage doesn't stem from any special innate ability to buckle down in the clutch; he holds leads because he's really good and hitters can't hit him whether they're winning or not.
- Brad Miller made his first start in center field and had to field exactly zero fly balls. Baseball. We have the same understanding of Miller's ability to play the position as we did yesterday, but I imagine Lloyd will feel more comfortable inserting him there going forward, as we all feel better about showing up five minutes late to work with each successive time we aren't yelled at or fired.
- Last but not least, Chris Taylor made a helluva play in the hole to get Encarnacion at first to end the bottom of the sixth: