Thursday, July 1, 2010
The 'rules' for King Felix are different
In the wake of Felix Hernandez's Wednesday-night clean sheet against the Yankees, New Yorkers are naturally wondering why their young guys can't do that. For an example, here's Tim Smith:
Hernandez, like Cliff Lee on Tuesday night, threw a complete game for the win. But Hernandez added some spice by pitching a two-hit shutout. Mark Teixeira and Colin Curtis each had doubles. Curtis reached second base after Chone Figgins lost a pop fly in the twilight sky and the ball fell on the grass behind first base.
In his last three games, Hernandez (6-5) has pitched 8-2/3, and nine innings twice.
"He was as good as we've seen all year," said Joe Girardi.
Although Hernandez is just 24 -- the same age as Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes -- you don't hear anyone with the Mariners talking about the "Felix Rules."
All young pitchers aren't built the same. But the way that Hernandez handled the Yankees Wednesday night, you wonder if all the coddling of Chamberlain and Hughes is necessary.
Apples and oranges, right? Or tangerines and oranges?
The Mariners' handling of Hernandez is, as near as I can tell, close to a case study in the care and feeding of a young pitcher.
The M's got Hernandez when he was still very young; at 17, he officially began his professional career and threw 69 innings (and was brilliant).
At 18, he threw 149 innings (and was brilliant).
At 19 ... well, at 19 things got a little crazy. He'd already pitched well in 10 Double-A starts and he seemed particularly precocious, so the M's started him in Triple-A. At 19, he was just one step from the majors. And of course he pitched brilliantly there, too, with an elevated walk rate the only hint that he wasn't some grizzled veteran with outstanding stuff.
Four months after his 19th birthday, Hernandez debuted in the majors. He pitched brilliantly, going 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 10 starts; that ERA would remain the lowest of his career until four seasons later (2009).
There have been a few bumps along the way. In his Hernandez's first full season, he finished with a 4.52 ERA. In his third full season, he went 9-11 and issued more walks than usual.
Throughout his journey, though, two things held true: Hernandez was not particularly overworked, and he did stay healthy. In his Age 19 season, split between Tacoma and Seattle, he threw 172 innings, only 23 more than the year before. In his Age 20 season, he threw 191 innings, only 19 more than the season before. And he hovered around the 200 mark until his Age 23 season (2009), when they turned him loose (and he was pitching brilliantly) and he threw 239 innings.
This season he's one pace for roughly 240 innings again ... which seems, if history's any guide, perfectly reasonable for a fantastic pitcher in his mid-20s with essentially no injury history. This is how it's supposed to work, and that it doesn't work this way often is due to any number of things, some of them within a team's control but most not.
When the Yankees drafted Chamberlain, he was almost 21 and his college coaches had already done God-knows-what to his right arm. I don't suppose he was in the best of shape, either. His "training" as a professional pitcher -- ideally, a starter who could give the Yankees at least 200 innings every season -- began at least three years later than Hernandez's training.
Hughes was drafted out of high school, and signed shortly after his 18th birthday ... but he, like most first-round picks, didn't pitch much in that first summer; only five innings in his first professional season. The next year, 86 innings. The year after that, 146 innings. And the year after that, Hughes started getting hurt and the "training" essentially began anew.
I'm sure the Yankees would love to have gotten a hold of Chamberlain and Hughes when they were 16 or 17, and put them on a strict diet of professional coaching, leafy vegetables, and reasonable pitch counts. But they didn't, and so they had to come up with something else once they did have them.
I'm not saying the Joba Rules were brilliantly devised, or that Hughes has been perfectly handled. But if the Yankees could have done with those guys what the Mariners did with Hernandez, they would have.
Occasionally -- very occasionally -- it's easy. Usually it's not.