On one hand, evaluating pitching performance is a pretty easy task. I'm not talking about arm release angles or predictive statistics, but rather the simple fact that you could go up to anyone who as ever seen a single game of baseball played, read them Chris Archer's stat line from this afternoon, and have yourself a bonafide evaluation of one of the league's rising stars. That evaluation? Chris Archer Good Baseball Throwing Guy.
I suppose that if we are being honest with ourselves, we should start with the fact that "good" doesn't even begin to cut it with what Archer was able to do to the M's today. But what I want to do is draw your attention to the number in that final box up there, those double digits below the letter K that tells you Chris Archer was not only able to keep over 12 of 26 Mariners hitters from reaching base this afternoon, but he also had the stuff capable of making them flail wildly in an attempt to even make foul contact with the insanity he was offering them up to hit against. That--and you don't have to be Logan to understand--is damn good pitching.
Now, what makes all this so wonderful is not that the Mariners were able to sneak out a win despite Archer's dominance. I mean hey, think of all the times you've seen Felix put up numbers just like the ones you see above and then walk away with an L on the day as his team fell even deeper out of competition in like, June or something. No, what made today's win all the sweeter is the fact that that very same Mariners pitcher who is perfectly capable of putting together outings like Archer's today woke up this morning, took one look at the lineup and opposing starting pitcher, and realized he didn't have to put up numbers like these to win the game.
Which is insane, when you really think about it. There are probably tens of thousands of pitchers at every level of professional baseball right now, walking out to the mound every five days begging and pleading fate to be able to throw every single pitch as well as they can, miss bats, and rack up strikeouts in order to show their pitching coaches or big-league managers that maybe--just maybe--they can have a shot at throwing in the big leagues someday. Whittle that number down to the 150 or so starters currently at the top of the game, and it feels fair to say that just about every single one of them would kill to be able to put up lines like Archer's on a regular basis. Not just for dominance, not just to get a better paycheck, but because logic would tell you that the most likely way to win a baseball game is to try and keep every opposing batter off the bases, and to strike them all out in the process.
Not Felix. I mean, sure, pitching to contact is something many pitchers do on a regular basis, turning their games towards getting groundball outs rather than hoping their three pitches are strong enough to get strikeouts on a regular basis. But the craziest part of all this is that Felix Hernandez can put up a line like Archers at least once out of every ten games--he's a strikeout pitcher, he has the repertoire to fool and punish hitters at will, and he's been doing both of those things for ten years precisely because he strikes out so many goddamn batters every time he takes the mound. So that's what he's going to do every day, right?
Let's go back to that image of Felix looking at the lineup card this morning. He's staring at that list of Rays hitters--smack dab in the middle of the league for most offensive categories, fifth highest in total strikeouts--and then he looks at the name towards the bottom which reads Chris Archer, a pitcher who has vaulted to surprising dominance in recent years in part by modeling his changeup off Felix's very own. The King and the coaching staff knew that putting anything together against the 26-year old righty was going to take some effort, and that to keep the M's in the game they would have to make sure that the Rays stayed off the board themselves. So what does Felix do? Battle for every strikeout? Ensure every Rays hitter goes down swinging to keep them 360 feet away from scoring a single run?
Nah. Felix looks at the lineup card and then looks at his arm and thinks to himself I don't even need to use this at the level that I'm capable of using it, and pitches for contact in order to keep himself in the game in the hopes that he can outlast Archer, who is averaging 10.85 K's per nine so far on the year. This is a man with a gift anyone else would trade years off their life to have, and he wakes up today and thinks eh, and watches as every single batter he lets reach runs into a double play. It's just not fair.
And none of this is to take away anything from Archer. His performance today was beautiful, the kind of stuff the best baseball is made out of, and Rays fans should be ecstatic they potentially have him under team control until 2021 (if there even are any Rays then). But what we saw this afternoon was baseball at its purest--two ace pitchers from the same league chasing playoff spots, trading barbs from different corners of the ring. In one? Filth, dominance, whiffs, unhittability. The other? Strategy, patience, a slow cooker with the best pulled pork sandwich you've ever had in your entire life. Felix and Archer could both have easily traded places. And yet, only one walked away with the win.
Today Felix notched his second complete game on the year and brought the M's back to .500, which he tried to pretend he didn't know about during postgame interviews, but I mean look at that fuckin' smirk at the end of this:
Jose Rivera (@Jose8BS) May 27, 2015
And what's most impressive is that the pitch to contact strategy worked. While only two Mariners hitters reached base, Archer was digging deep to punish the rest of them, handily gifting Austin Jackson a golden sombrero and making even the streaking Kyle Seager look a little silly on the afternoon. It was probably feeling great, but after six innings, Archer was at 81 pitches. Felix? Oh, you know, just sitting in the dugout with that signature scowl, spitting chew and keeping his arm warm with fifty nine pitches on the day. J.A. Happ had 49 in just two innings last week in Baltimore.
So by the time Archer was through 95 into the ninth inning, the Rays put in closer Brad Boxberger to ensure their young ace wouldn't tax his arm in a blanked game that could potentially bleed into extras with no end in sight. Boxberger, who entered the series with a 13.22 K/9, 2.74 xFIP, and 1.10 ERA. Top-ten reliever numbers in the entire game. The tenth-inning game-winning homer to Kyle Seager last night may have been a bit unexpected, but there was no way such a dominant reliever was going to shit the bed yet again, two days in a row.
Ah. A floater, in more ways than one.
Oh, yeah, and then Felix came back out and came within two pitches of notching the
first Maddux of his career since 2006 (Thanks, UWDawg5). Now, the Mariners season is reset at .500, Felix is at 8-1 less than halfway through the season, and Nelson Cruz is still the Based Brow, hitting his way through Bonds numbers and making everyone who laughed at the contract feel a bit silly in the process. So tell me? How we feeling today, ladies and gentlemen, watching a streaking team hand a losing no-decision to a starting pitcher that lasted eight terrifying innings with 12 strikeouts and only two hits?
Trust us, Chris. We know how you feel. Exactly how you feel.