SweetSpot: Felix Hernandez

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Eric and I discuss Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw as MVP candidates. Justin Verlander won in 2011 but that's a rarity for a pitcher. Could both guys win MVP honors this year?

(For an excellent breakdown of the history of pitchers as MVP candidates, check out this piece from Dave Cameron at FanGraphs. I still can't believe Dwight Gooden didn't win in 1985.)
Last week, after Corey Kluber dominated the Mariners with an 85-pitch shutout, I rashly tweeted that Kluber is one of the best 10 starting pitchers in the game. That seemed to stir things up a bit on Twitter, and Giants fans were especially angered when I suggested Kluber is better than Madison Bumgarner. Kluber came back on Monday with another solid effort, allowing one run while striking out seven in 7.1 innings, improving his record to 12-6 with a 2.55 ERA.

But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?

[+] EnlargeCorey Kluber
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe's been very, very good. But is Corey Kluber one of the 10 best starters in baseball right now?
How do you even measure such a thing? We can take the easy way out and just look at wins above replacement for the season.

FanGraphs
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.8
2. Corey Kluber: 5.0
3. Jon Lester: 4.7
4. Clayton Kershaw: 4.5
5. Chris Sale: 4.2

Baseball-Reference
1. Felix Hernandez: 5.5
2. Clayton Kershaw: 5.2
3. Corey Kluber: 4.7
4. Johnny Cueto: 4.6
5. Chris Sale/Max Scherzer: 4.5

By WAR, Kluber isn't just a top-10 starter, but a top-five starter. Even ignoring how much you believe in WAR, the question is: Do you buy into Kluber's four-month streak as a true breakout performance? How much emphasis do we place on history? Zack Greinke won a Cy Young Award in 2009. Should that matter as to how we evaluate him now? Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year when he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. How much should that matter as to how we evaluate him in August 2014?

Bill James actually devised a method to answer this question a couple of years ago. He wrote:
Everybody starts out with a ranking of 300.0, and you can’t go lower than 300, even if you pitch badly. If you’re at 300, you’re unranked; you’re only actually on the list if you have a current score higher than 300. There would typically be 150 to 180 pitchers who are, at the moment, ranked. Pitchers never actually pitch badly enough that they would rank below 300 (if it were possible to do so) for more than two or three starts, because if you pitch that badly, you lose your position in the rotation.

When a pitcher makes a start, we:

a) Mark down his previous ranking by 3%, and

b) Add 30% of his Game Score for the start.

We base the rankings on Game Scores, which means that we ignore wins and losses, but give weight to innings pitched, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, walks and strikeouts.


James also adjusted for park effects, inactivity (if a pitcher doesn't pitch, his overall rating goes down) and postseason play, which he factored in. Anyway, his site unfortunately doesn't update the rankings, so I don't know how Kluber would rank. So I'll just wing my own top 10.

1. Clayton Kershaw

The best pitcher in baseball, and I don't think anybody is really arguing this. Hernandez ranks higher on the WAR lists because Kershaw missed April, so he doesn't have as many innings.

2. Felix Hernandez

3. Adam Wainwright

Similar in many ways -- veteran right-handers (it seems weird to call Felix a "veteran," but he has been around a long time) having their best seasons.

4. Chris Sale

He's 10-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 20 walks in 116 innings. Incredible numbers. He has cut his home run rate from last year, even though he pitches in a good home run park. I'm not knocking Wainwright when I say this: Sale is better. But he did miss time earlier this year and I think we have to give Wainwright extra credit for his durability.

5. Yu Darvish

6. David Price

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I'm not completely comfortable ranking Price this high -- he's ninth in FanGraphs WAR and 25th in B-R WAR. He has 189 strikeouts and just 23 walks but has allowed 20 home runs, and he goes from a good pitcher's park with a good Rays defense behind him to a better hitter's park with a below-average Tigers defense behind him. It's possible that change will reveal that he did benefit from pitching in Tampa. Or it may not reveal anything. But Price has been good a pitcher for five years, and his new approach of pounding the strike zone has basically turned him into a harder-throwing version of Cliff Lee.

OK, now things get a little murky. Let's start with Kluber versus Bumgarner, because that got a lot of feedback on Twitter.

I know Bumgarner has been a solid pitcher for several years. He has come up big in the postseason. But in comparing 2014: Kluber has the better ERA, the better FIP, the better strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, a lower home run rate, a higher ground ball rate, the lower batting average and OPS allowed, has pitched more innings and has done it in a DH league while pitching in a tougher park with a lousy defense behind him. I can't rate Bumgarner ahead of Kluber.

(By the way, Bumgarner's career high bWAR is 3.8, achieved last year. A lot of that is park effects. Giants fans will point out that Bumgarner has a better ERA on the road in his career than at home, but that's not the way park effects work. Bumgarner still has the advantage of pitching half his games in a pitcher's park.)

Jon Lester? Hmm. Lester is a No. 2 starter having a No. 1-level season. But he had a 3.75 ERA last year and 4.82 the year before. FanGraphs and B-R differ on his value -- FanGraphs ranks him third overall while B-R ranks him 22nd. Kluber, by the way, had a 3.85 ERA last year with excellent peripherals. If you give Lester a little extra credit for his postseason last year, I'll reluctantly give him the nod, although I think his track record works against him just as much as Kluber's lack of track record works against him.

Scherzer is similar to Lester, except his No. 1 season came last year. He's been nearly as good this year, even though his BABIP has once again bounced up:

2011: .314
2012: .333
2013: .259
2014: .316

One reason Scherzer's BABIP is usually high is that he does pitch up in the strike zone, unlike a lot of pitchers who pound the zone at the knees. Of course, the other reason is the lousy Tigers defense. (Take note, Mr. Price.)

Johnny Cueto? I'm not quite sure what to do with Cueto, giving his history of injuries. But we're talking best starters right now, and Cueto has been healthy and effective all season and he has always been effective even when he has missed time.

Garrett Richards is another young starter having a breakout season. While Kluber relies on command and a wipeout curve, Richards has upper 90s heat and a deadly slider. Their numbers:

Kluber: 2.55 ERA, .233/.277/.341, 26.7 percent K rate
Richards: 2.58 ERA, .195/.267/.259, 24.7 percent K rate

Kluber rates a little higher in WAR because he has pitched 12 more innings and Richards benefits from a pitcher's park. Tough call here. Like Kluber, Richards doesn't have much of a track record before this season. There's no denying his stuff. Richards has the fourth-lowest BABIP allowed among starters at .258 (Kluber's is .309) and a low rate of home runs per fly ball (third-lowest among starters). I think those numbers indicate Richards has pitched in more good luck than Kluber this season. But I could be wrong; his stuff is nasty.

OK, where does that leave us? With apologies to Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, the injured Masahiro Tanaka and maybe a couple of others, the top 10 starters in the majors RIGHT NOW:

1. Kershaw
2. Hernandez
3. Wainwright
4. Sale
5. Darvish
6. Price
7. Cueto
8. Lester
9. Kluber
10. Scherzer

Including Richards, you could rank the final four guys in any order, really. If you want a longer track record, go with Lester and Scherzer. If you like raw, unhittable stuff, go with Richards. If you think postseason history matters, go with Lester. If you like 28-year-olds out of nowhere with curveballs that make major league hitters weep in frustration, go with our man Corey Kluber -- one of the 10 best starters in the game.
Two statistical nuggets:
  • Felix Hernandez tied Tom Seaver's major league record with 13 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer.
  • Adam Wainwright has allowed zero runs in 10 starts this season, three more than any other starter.


So, which feat is more impressive?

To put Wainwright's nugget in context, since 1980 only three pitchers have had more than 10 no-run starts, all with 11: Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985 and Cliff Lee in 2011. Eight other times a pitcher matched Wainwright's total of 10: Roger Clemens (1997 and 2005); Pedro Martinez (2000 and 2002); Clayton Kershaw (2011 and 2013); Greg Maddux (2002); and Chris Young (2007).

(The Baseball-Reference Play Index goes back to 1914 and five other times a pitcher topped 11: Pete Alexander in 1916 with 16, all complete game shutouts; Sandy Koufax in 1963, Dean Chance in 1964 and Bob Gibson in 1968, all with 13; and Alexander again in 1915 with 12.)

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Anyway, in a way it's a question of consistent dominance versus dominance mixed in with a few bad or mediocre starts. Which is more valuable? But in evaluating the context of each pitcher's individual performance, you could conceivably factor in things like the strength of the opponent, the park and the pitcher's performance (strikeouts, walks, hits). Bill James actually just had a long series of articles on this where he examined every start of a pitcher's season for each of those areas (plus the run context of the season). Each start was then graded on a scale from 0 to 10. You can then use the data to break down each pitcher's season in total. It would be fun to compare Hernandez and Wainwright, but the numbers aren't publicly available.

Baseball Prospectus used to have a stat called support-neutral win-loss record, which assessed each pitcher's projected win-loss record given his innings and runs for each outing and average run support, but I don't see that on their site. (Felix has won just seven of his 13 starts, no fault of his.)

Interestingly, Hernandez has just two zero-run starts this season. But he's allowed more than four runs just once -- six against Houston on April 21 (and just two of those were earned) -- whereas Wainwright has had games of seven, six and six runs.

For the season, we can use a stat like to WAR evaluate each pitcher's overall performance. Felix leads Wainwright in FanGraphs WAR, 5.5 to 3.5, while Wainwright leads in Baseball-Reference WAR, 5.3 to 5.0. Felix leads in Baseball Prospectus' WARP, 4.0 to 3.3.

So which feat is more impressive? One thing about allowing zero runs: You're almost guaranteed to win the game. And, indeed, the Cardinals are 10-0 in those 10 games.

On the other hand, Felix has a chance to do something no pitcher has ever done -- 14 consecutive great starts.

What do you think? I'd probably give the slight edge to Wainwright's 10 scoreless games ... although the edge to Felix for the better overall season.




OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

[+] EnlargeHallion
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

4. New stars emerge.

Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

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Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

7. The NL Central race.

With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.
Longtime reader/chatter Tarek asked the following question in Tuesday's chat: How many of this year's All-Stars will have a better career than Derek Jeter?

Now, that's a bit of a layered question when you start factoring in things like World Series titles and legacy, two areas where it's difficult to trump Jeter. So let's keep it simple: How many will finish with a higher career Wins Above Replacement than Jeter?

Jeter's current career WAR, via Baseball-Reference.com, is 72.1. That's fourth among active players, behind Alex Rodriguez (116.0), Albert Pujols (95.0) and Adrian Beltre (74.0).

Does Beltre, who made this year's All-Star Game, ranking so high surprise you? He's not really considered a slam-dunk Hall of Famer right now, in part because a large percentage of that value is tied into his defense. His career batting line has a much different arc than Jeter's:

Beltre: .284/.335/.480
Jeter: .311/.379/.443

Jeter has the better on-base percentage but Beltre has more power. Who has been the more valuable hitter? Beltre has created an estimated 1,410 runs in 9,704 career plate appearances -- 5.6 runs per 27 outs. Jeter has created 1,887 runs in 12,315 PAs -- 6.3 runs per 27 outs. Those are not park-adjusted figures; Beltre spent a large portion of his career in Dodger Stadium and Safeco Field, two pitcher's parks, so that draws him a little closer. But getting on base is more important than slugging and B-R estimates Jeter has been 362 runs better than the average hitter while Beltre has been 193.

But Beltre makes up for that with his good fielding and Jeter's poor fielding. The fielding metrics Baseball-Reference uses has Beltre at 183 runs above average on defense and Jeter at 240 runs below average. So that's how Beltre ends up higher than Jeter in career WAR.

Here are the five remaining 2014 All-Stars with the highest career WAR:

Chase Utley: 60.8
Mark Buehrle: 57.9
Miguel Cabrera: 57.6
Robinson Cano: 48.1
Felix Hernandez: 42.9

A quick and dirty way to see how these guys compare to Jeter is to check his career WAR when he was their age.

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Utley (age-35 season) -- Jeter was at 67.3
Utley rates so well due to more high-peak seasons than Jeter. He was arguably the second-best all-around player in the game from 2005 through 2009 when he averaged 7.9 WAR per season (only Pujols was better). Even while missing time with injuries in recent seasons, Utley has reached at least 3.0 WAR the past three seasons and is already at 2.9 this year. So he's behind Jeter but Jeter didn't do much after turning 36. Could be close.

Buehrle (age-35 season) -- Jeter was 67.3
He's headed for his 14th consecutive season of 200-plus innings. He's never been a big star but he's still accumulating value and with his style of pitching could easily remain effective until 40. Can he pile up 16 more WAR before he's done? He was probably over his head in the first half -- 4.0 WAR compared to 2.1 all of 2013 -- so I say he comes up short.

Cabrera (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
Even though he doesn't earn much value with his defense or position, Cabrera is well ahead of Jeter at the same age. His offensive numbers are down from the past few seasons but he's still hitting .312, leading the league with 32 doubles and has been worth 3.0 WAR. He should soar past Jeter and approach at least 80 career WAR.

Cano (age-31 season) -- Jeter was at 48.4
So these two are just about dead even at the same age, although Cano will move ahead by the end of the season. Jeter had two of his better seasons at 32 (5.5 WAR) and 35 (6.5). With his decline in power so far, Cano is at 2.9 WAR, well below the 7.4 he averaged the previous four seasons. He's been one of the most durable players in the game (as was Jeter until his injury in the 2012 playoffs). Yankees fan will never put Cano on the same pedestal as Jeter -- in part because of Cano's dismal .222 postseason average -- but through the same age it's hard to argue he hasn't been as valuable in the regular season.

Hernandez (age-28 season) -- Jeter was at 36.8
King Felix is ahead of Jeter's pace. Of course, most pitchers don't remain as durable as Buehrle. Hernandez is in the midst of his best season yet and there's no reason he won't stay dominant for many more years if his elbow and shoulder remain intact.

What about the younger guys? Well, Mike Trout only needs five more 10-win seasons to pass The Captain.


It's the award-winning Rapid Fire! Today, Eric and I discuss the Angels' rotation, more replay confusion, Jose Altuve's chances of winning the batting, Manny Machado and the Orioles and whether Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award and more!

Sailing looks smoother for the Mariners

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
11:42
PM ET


After slowly embarking on the season, the Seattle Mariners are starting to make waves in the AL West. Though they made a huge offseason splash by signing Robinson Cano, a sluggish 10-14 record in April threatened to sink their expectations. Going into 2014, even with the addition of Cano, hopes for smooth sailing were somewhat tempered for a team coming off a floundering 2013 season in which the Mariners were outscored by 130 runs on their way to an abysmal 71-91 record, sputtering to fourth place with only the scuttled Astros saving them from the deep end of the AL West. So, what factors have helped to right the ship?

Historically, the Mariners' offense has a habit of getting stuck in port. In 2014, however, they are 12th in baseball in runs scored despite being 23rd in the league in team OPS. According to Baseball-Reference.com, like many teams, they are being torpedoed by Safeco Field, generating just a .652 OPS at home. Part of that is mitigated by a .764 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. Whether that is due to machinations of the Mariners’ new manager, Lloyd McClendon, or blind luck may be the determining factor that sets the rudder for the Mariners for the rest of 2014.

One offensive catalyst for Seattle’s improved offense is the surge of Kyle Seager. The best third baseman in the AL not named Josh Donaldson has taken his game to a new level, generating the second-best WAR among AL third basemen with a total of 3.5. That increase is fueled in part by a career-high OPS at .839 as he has added power and a bit of batting average. Also, according to Baseball-Reference.com, his defense has substantially improved, with gains in range and in fielding percentage. At just 26 years of age with an ample minor league track record, he offers good reason to believe this high tide is for real.

Another reason for the Mariners’ good voyage so far in 2014 comes in the form of Fernando Rodney. A Tampa Bay Rays castoff, Rodney is leading the AL with 25 saves, the 25th coming in the 14th inning against the White Sox on Saturday afternoon. His command of the strike zone has been stellar by his sometimes erratic standards, with just 11 walks and 39 strikeouts over 34.1 innings pitched. He’s also allowed only one home run all year. These walk, strikeout and home run stats might be considered fluky if he hadn’t done it before in his career.

Of course you haven’t forgotten the way Felix Hernandez breezes through hitters. Well, Hernandez’s 2014 performance is elite even by his kingly standards. A far cry from the days when he won the Cy Young Award with a mediocre win-loss record (supported by less-than-mediocre offense), King Felix is an early-season favorite for another one, as he has racked up a record of 10-2 while having a career year in terms of WHIP (0.92) and ERA (2.10). On Saturday he was stellar again, allowing only four baserunners and two runs over 8 innings for a no-decision in Seattle’s 3-2, 14-inning win against the White Sox. Navigating his way through the American League lineups with aplomb, Hernandez has not allowed more than two runs in a start since May 12.

After their slow start to the year, the Mariners have gone 37-25 (.596) since May 1. It won’t be easy to leapfrog the A’s, who just rocked the boat with their blockbuster trade for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Nor will the Angels keep their sails furled, either. But as the July 31 trade deadline approaches on the horizon, expect Seattle to have the spyglass out in search of a cannon for its lineup. That might just provide the gust of wind the Mariners will need to navigate the division’s rough seas.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.
It may not be quite accurate to suggest Felix Hernandez is pitching the best baseball of his career, considering he’s won a Cy Young Award, pitched a perfect game and has been one of the game’s best starters since 2009.

But Felix Hernandez is pitching the best baseball of his career.

Hernandez threw eight scoreless innings against the Indians on Sunday in a 3-0 win, allowing just one hit -- a fifth-inning ground ball by Lonnie Chisenhall off an 0-1 curveball just to the right of a diving Robinson Cano. Or half-diving, I should say; Cano isn’t one to lay full-out for a ball, even with a no-hitter on the line. It was a makeable play for someone with a little better range. As smooth and effortless as Cano looks on defense, I don’t think his range is up there with the elite defenders. The Mariners didn’t have a shift on against Chisenhall; if they had, it would have been a routine play for the defender playing up the middle.

(As an aside: Giants fans weren’t happy with my write-up on Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter last Thursday, because I dared to mention that it came against the .216-hitting Padres, making it rather unimpressive in the annals of no-hitters, especially when also factoring in Lincecum struck out just six batters. But doesn’t Hernandez’s game on Sunday show the luck usually needed for a no-hitter? That’s why we don’t see many of them. You need a great pitching performance and a few balls that don’t find holes. Chisenhall’s ball wasn’t hit hard; if Cano had been playing one step to his right, he would've made the play.)

One of the things that makes Hernandez so tough is that he can alter his game plan in any given start. Yes, hitters know they’re going to see a lot of changeups, especially with two strikes, but on Sunday, five of Hernandez’s nine strikeouts came on fastballs, which tied his most in a start over the past five seasons. Hernandez’s fastball velocity has actually been up a little bit from 2013 -- 92.3 mph compared to 91.6, but he isn’t one to air it out all the time, a good lesson for the kids who want to throw 97 every pitch. Hernandez can still run it up to 95; more than anything, however, he puts it where he wants it. Look where he spots his fastball against left-handers:

 

While his changeup is one of the most lethal pitches in the majors, it's his fastball command (and also his ability to throw his curveball and slider for strikes) that sets up the change. For Hernandez, pitching is about outthinking the hitter. Because of his command, left-handers are hitting .255 against his fastball with no home runs. (Hernandez hasn’t allowed a home run on a fastball all season.) And when hitters fall behind, they get that changeup that dives low and away -- left-handers are hitting .122 against that pitch.

Hernandez now has nine straight games where he’s pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs , the longest such stretch of his career. Even in this era of dominant pitching, that’s a rarely seen streak of dominance; the only other pitchers with nine such games in a row since 2010 have been Justin Verlander in 2011 and Johnny Cueto this year (Cueto had 10 if you include his final start from 2013). Even going back to 1990, the only other pitchers with nine in a row were Johan Santana in 2004 and Randy Johnson in 1999. The last pitcher with more? Mike Scott, with 12, in 1986.

Hernandez is on a pretty historic stretch of pitching, and is a key reason the Mariners are 44-38 and currently holding a slim lead for the second wild-card spot. Unfortunately in the tough AL West, while the Mariners have gone 7-3 over their past 10 games, they have failed to make up any ground as the Angels also went 7-3 and the A’s went 8-2.

While Hernandez's command seems better than ever, and he’s allowed only four home runs, he’s also benefited from better defense and Mike Zunino behind the plate. It’s no coincidence that Hernandez had his two best seasons in 2009 and 2010 -- those teams had Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki in the outfield and the '09 squad had Adrian Beltre at third for most of the season. The Mariners’ defense, particularly in the outfield, was brutal last season. Look at Seattle’s Defensive Runs Saved each year since 2009:

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2009: +85
2010: +11
2011: +1
2012: +17
2013: -99
2014: -4

After posting a 2.38 ERA in 2009-10, Hernandez has been over 3.00 each of the past three seasons, although his strikeout and walk rates remained about the same. (He actually had the best K-rate and lowest walk rate of his career last season, and has improved slightly in both categories in 2014.)

Last year, thanks in part to that terrible defense, Hernandez allowed a .313 average on balls in play, his highest since 2008. Yes, getting Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse out of the outfield has helped the Mariners' defense.

The other benefit has been Zunino, a much-improved catcher compared to the likes of Jesus Montero, Miguel Olivo and other recent Mariners catchers. Check out the percentage of "takes" that have been called strikes for Hernandez:

2014: 36.6 percent
2013: 32.4 percent
2012: 33.7 percent
2011: 34.4 percent
2010: 34.0 percent
2009: 31.9 percent

Yes, we could simply chalk that up to Hernandez throwing more strikes or improving his command, and some of that is probably true (along with, I would suggest, better focus each start). But Zunino has undoubtedly helped; Statcorner.com rates Zunino is fourth in the majors in runs saved due to his pitch framing. Even a couple extra strikes a game can be a big help.

It’s been a bit of a magical season so far for the Mariners, but nothing has been more magical than Hernandez. The King has led the way.
A glance through Sunday's results and some quick thoughts ... at least one for every team!
  • A's 11, Orioles 1: I wrote about Manny Machado's embarrassing episode here. How much of this is frustration by Machado? While he has had four two-hit games since May 31, his season line is a mediocre .235/.291/.346. Last June 30, he was hitting .321/.350/.489 with 35 doubles (remember when he was on a record pace for doubles in a season?). Since then he's hit .238/.278/.360 with 16 doubles in 107 games. Pitchers have been able to tie him up inside (.204 on inside pitches) and get him with primarily offspeed stuff outside (.236). For the first time, Machado is learning that baseball is hard. He needs to make those adjustments at the plate. ... The fielding metrics love Josh Donaldson's fielding and he passes the eye test with great plays like this one. If I'm voting today, he's my AL MVP.
  • Mariners 5, Rays 0: Felix Hernandez had one of the best games of his career on Sunday, with a career-high 15 K's in just seven innings. Remember when we were all worried about that no-strikeout game a few weeks ago? Since then he's 5-0 in six starts (he didn't get the win on Sunday since Seattle didn't score until a two-out, five-run rally in the ninth) with a 1.99 ERA. Jeff Sullivan suggests one reason for his success is Mike Zunino's ability to frame those pitches low in the strike zone. ... I love when managers do this: Ten days ago Endy Chavez wasn't good enough to be on the team and now Lloyd McClendon is batting him first or second. ... David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer are all underperforming their FIP. I don't think that gives any solace to Rays fans.
  • Angels 4, White Sox 2: Interesting move by Mike Scioscia to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Adam Dunn in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But the batter was backup catcher Adrian Nieto, who had entered earlier for Tyler Flowers, so the White Sox had to let him hit. ... Any doubt that the AL West is the best division in baseball right now? ... Robin Ventura had used Nieto to run for Flowers in the eighth after a leadoff walk. That didn't really make sense since the score was 4-0 at the time. ... Tough sweep for the White Sox since Sunday's loss came on the heels of leading 5-0 in the eighth on Saturday with Chris Sale pitching.
  • Astros 14, Twins 5: With George Springer, Jose Altuve and now Jon Singleton, the Astros have been interesting to watch for the first time in years. They're 16-9 since May 13 and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. ... How about Springer for the All-Star Game? Hitting .251/.346/.497 with 12 home runs and that's come after a slow start. With just one steal, hasn't flashed the stolen base part of that 30/30 potential, however. ... Don't exactly understand the Kendrys Morales signing for the Twins. The Twins are 29-32 and while that puts them in the wild-card race, it also means they're not that good. Morales isn't really a difference-maker. Wonder if he becomes trade bait in July if the Twins fall out if it.
  • Red Sox 5, Tigers 3: If anyone can stop a Red Sox losing streak, it's Joba Chamberlain. ... Big Papi doesn't miss 83-mph hanging sliders. ... I have mixed opinions on the Tigers right now. They're 33-26, but have outscored opponents by just nine runs. I wonder what Justin Verlander is right now and the late-inning relief has been shaky, although to be fair Joba had done a decent job before Sunday's ninth-inning blow-up. The offense looks mediocre beyond the awesome 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It still seems like they should run away with the AL Central, but maybe we'll get a race like the past two seasons.
  • Indians 3, Rangers 2: The Indians are fifth in the AL in runs and while Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall have been great, I think there's still more upside from this group, especially from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. ... This is one team that could really use David Price. He'd look pretty nice alongside Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, but not sure the Indians have the prospects to get a deal done (they're not trading Francisco Lindor). ... Just not going to be the Rangers' year. Now Mitch Moreland, not that he was hitting great, is out for maybe the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery, and second baseman Rougned Odor had to leave Sunday's game with a sprained shoulder.
  • Royals 2, Yankees 1: The other day, I heard Yankees announcer John Sterling say the Yankees can only play better the rest of the season. Is that really true, however? This looks like a classic .500 team to me. ... Gotta love Ned Yost. He's hitting the players with the two highest OBPs on the team (Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain) fifth and seventh for the most part.
  • Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0: Impressive back-to-back shutouts for the Cards in Toronto. ... Amazingly, the Cards have now homered in back-to-back games for the first time since May 7-9, snapping a 26-game stretch without homering in consecutive games. ... That lack of power remains one of the most important issues in the National League moving forward. ... You do wonder how the Blue Jays' rotation will hold up. Mark Buehrle is due to slide (he lost Saturday) and Sunday starter Drew Hutchison has been inconsistent and is coming off Tommy John surgery so you wonder about fatigue later in the season with him.
  • Giants 6, Mets 4: Hard to find a flaw right now with the Giants. Tim Lincecum wasn't great on Sunday -- allowing three runs in six innings -- but when he's the weakest link on the club that's how you can have the best record in baseball. ... Brandon Crawford remains an unsung member of the team, very good at shortstop and contributes with the bat. ... As bad as the Mets lineup looked on Sunday, the Mets are averaging 4.0 runs per game, right at the NL average. I hear the lineup being criticized a lot as being awful, but it's not, it's actually mediocre.
  • Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: On Sunday, the most expensive payroll in the majors rolled out a lineup that had Chone Figgins leading off, Scott Van Slyke batting fifth and playing center field, somebody named Jamie Romak batting sixth and playing right field, somebody named Miguel Rojas batting seventh and weak-hitting Drew Butera hitting eighth. And they won! ... Charlie Blackmon since May 1: .246/.289/.405. ... The Rockies are 2-11 their past 13 and their next 27 games are all against teams currently with a winning record. They may be 10 games under .500 by the end of that stretch. It was fun for awhile.
  • Diamondbacks 6, Braves 5: I think it's too late, but the D-backs are 20-15 since April 30. ... Chase Anderson is 5-0 in five starts. Is he this good? Probably not. His FIP is 4.54 but his ERA is 3.14. He had a 5.73 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. He doesn't throw hard (average fastball is 90 mph) but has thrown strikes so far and hasn't hurt himself. ... Not sure how much longer the Braves can ride the Aaron Harang bandwagon (six walks on Monday). ... Tommy La Stella has hit .400 in nine games although with no extra-base hits. That's what he is, a guy who can hit for average and put the ball in play. He won't be a huge offensive contributor since it will be an empty average, but he should still be an upgrade over what they got from Dan Uggla the past year-plus (including defensively).
  • Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Yovani Gallardo had his best start of the season. I think he's a huge key to the Brewers winning the NL Central. ... If I'm filling out my All-Star ballot today, Jonathan Lucroy gets my vote as starting catcher. ... Is this what Starling Marte is, a .230 hitter? With 68 strikeouts and just 16 walks, he clearly has holes in his swing and areas he can be pitched to.
  • Nationals 6, Padres 0: You rarely see a pitcher dominate with just his fastball, but that's essentially what Jordan Zimmermann did, with nine of his 12 K's coming on his fastball. ... Zimmermann has lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.17 with two scoreless starts. Is he back to the guy who dominated in the first half of last year? We'll see, but those two starts came against the Phillies and Padres. ... The Nationals have the best ERA in the majors since May 1 at 2.87. ... This upcoming road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco will be an interesting test for the Nationals to make a statement that they're more than just a .500-ish team. ... Chase Headley will always have that second half of 2012. Will he go down as the least likely season RBI leader ever?
  • Marlins 4, Cubs 3: The Marlins continue to hang in there, although let's see if Henderson Alvarez's injury is serious (he left in the sixth with a hip strain after his scoreless streak ended at 26 innings). ... Next 16 games are against teams with losing records, so an important stretch to play well. ... Lineup is still more than just Giancarlo Stanton -- seven of the eight regulars have an OPS+ better than league average. ... In general, I still like this club and expect them to hang around in the NL East. ... Have the Cubs found a starter in Jake Arrieta? In 16 starts with them, he has a 3.18 ERA. Maybe leaving Camden Yards helped his confidence or maybe at 28 he's finally figuring a few things out. He's also being limited to 5-6 innings per outing. There are some gray areas in the numbers but he does have a 2.58 FIP this year to go with his 2.50 ERA, primarily because he's allowed just one home run. I'm still a little skeptical, as home runs have always been a big problem for him.
  • Reds 4, Phillies 1: Speaking of bad lineups, maybe it's time Bryan Price demotes Brandon Phillips and his .305 OBP out of the third spot? Not that Price has a lot of good options. He's hit Todd Frazier, the team's best hitter this season, in the second spot quite a bit recently, but he was hitting sixth on Sunday. So Price hit his hottest hitter sixth in order to lead off his lineup with three guys with OBPs of .288, .267 and .305. ... As for the Phillies, don't even get me going on Ben Revere, who drew a walk leading off a game for the first time in his career. He's hitting .282 ... with a robust .298 OBP. It's National League baseball, 2014 style!


Who is the best starting pitcher in baseball right now? I think you can make a strong case for Chris Sale, who maybe isn't the first guy who pops into your head, in part because he did miss a few starts with a tender elbow -- technically a strained flexor muscle -- but he's returned to the White Sox and been nearly unhittable.

In fact, he has been unhittable when facing left-handed batters: They're 0-for-32 against him on the season. In his past four outings, Sale has allowed four hits in 25 innings for a .051 batting average against.

Is he the best? Let's do a quick roll call.

Chris Sale
Sale


The case for: 5-0, 1.59 ERA in seven starts. Has allowed a .126 average against with a 52-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His slider has been known to make grown men cry. He had a 3.05 ERA in 2012 and 3.07 in 2013, while pitching in one the best home run parks in the majors. Distinctive three-quarter delivery and unusual arm angle have earned him the nickname "The Condor," which is worth bonus points. Arguably improving as strikeout rate has increased and walk rate decreased.

The case against: Has just one 200-inning season in his career and may not get there this year. This hit rate is unsustainable. Concern about elbow. Only one of his seven starts has come against a team with an above-average offense (and that was Cleveland, which ranks seventh in the AL in runs per game).

Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw


The case for: He's been the best pitcher in baseball the past three years and should have won three straight Cy Young Awards (he has two). He's 4-2, 3.32 and people say he's struggling even though his strikeout and walk rates are both better than last season. If God needed one pitch to get out the Devil, he just might choose Kershaw's curveball. He's averaged 232 innings the past three seasons. He's pitched in front of a shaky defense, especially with poor range from exiled center fielder Matt Kemp and shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Take away that seven-run game where he lasted 1 2/3 innings and he's been as dominant as ever.

The case against: A 3.32 ERA is a 3.32 ERA. Missed time with a sore back, so you have to worry about that. Has actually allowed three extra-base hits, including a home run, off that curveball, which is three more extra-base hits than he allowed last year with it. Got hammered in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series by the Cardinals last year. Only one outing of more than seven innings this year.

Yu Darvish
Darvish


The case for: If you were going to sculpt a pitcher from clay and infuse him with life, you'd want him to look like Darvish and possess his right arm. He's 5-2 with a 2.04 ERA while pitching in a hitters' park. He's leading the AL in strikeouts per nine innings for the second straight year. Darvish has allowed just three home runs this year after allowing 26 in 2013. Kershaw has allowed a lower batting average (300 innings minimum) since 2012, but Darvish doesn't get to face pitchers. He's walking fewer batters, and over his past four starts -- which included games against Toronto, Detroit and Washington, three good offensive teams -- he allowed four runs and struck out 41 in 31 2/3 innings.

The case against: Hey, he's never thrown a complete game either. Still runs up big pitch counts, which can lead to early exits. Has missed a couple of starts with neck stiffness -- this following a nerve problem in his lower back that hampered him last September.

Masahiro Tanaka
Tanaka


The case for: He's 9-1 with a 2.02 ERA and has 12 quality starts in 12 starts. Leads AL starters in lowest OBP allowed. He's 33-1 over the past two seasons. His splitter has been outlawed by multiple religious groups for defying the laws of nature; batters are hitting .135 against it with 48 strikeouts, two walks and one home run (by Melky Cabrera, on Tanaka's first pitch of the season, which means he's since thrown 315 splitters without much damage). He's rebounded from his one loss with three straight one-run starts.

The case against: It's only 12 starts, so let's see what happens as teams see him again. The quality start stat is a little dubious since he allowed four runs in six innings in his defeat, but only three of the runs were earned. He's allowed eight home runs, so the long ball may prove to be an issue. Struck out 10-plus batters three times in his first five starts but hasn't done it since.

Max Scherzer
Scherzer


The case for: The reigning AL Cy Young winner is 6-2 with a 3.20 ERA; his strikeout, walk and home run rates are essentially the same as last year. Few pitchers can match his four-pitch arsenal of four plus pitches. Has had four starts with no runs allowed this year. Have to admire the guts to turn down a reported $144 million contract and hit free agency after the season.

The case against: Has never thrown a complete game in the majors. If you're talking about the best at this very moment, Scherzer has allowed 16 runs in his past three starts. Hit rate is back up this year. Had one great season but career ERA is still 3.64.

Adam Wainwright
Wainwright


The case for: Talk about a workhouse. Led the NL in innings (and wins) in 2009 and again last season. This year, he's once again leading in innings and wins. He's 8-3 with a 2.31 ERA and holding batters to a .194 average. His curveball has been known to break knees, spirits and bank accounts. Has a 2.53 career postseason ERA and is the prototypical staff leader. He's third in the majors since 2012 in FIP (fielding independent pitching) behind only Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. Has had six games this season of seven-plus innings and no runs.

The case against: His BABIP this season is .252, far below his .320 of 2012 and .311 of last season, so his hit rate may increase moving forward. Gets to pitch in the NL Central, which, let's face it, has had some pretty weak offenses in recent years, except the team Wainwright pitches for. Does have some blowup starts -- a seven-run and six-run game this year, a nine-run and six-run game last year. (Hey, we're nitpicking here.)

Felix Hernandez
Hernandez


The case for: His FIP is second in the majors over the past three years -- 2.62 to Kershaw's 2.57, and he does that facing deeper lineups. He's 8-1 with a 2.57 ERA this year and just three home runs allowed. Has topped 200 innings in six consecutive seasons. That changeup, oh that changeup. Shakespeare would write love sonnets about it if he were alive today. Batters are hitting .143 against it with 49 strikeouts and three walks and one home run (praise you, Matt Dominguez). Has pitched in front of a lot of lousy defense the past couple of seasons, particularly in 2013, when the Mariners' outfield was especially atrocious. Has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career and faces the pressure of often having to win with one or two runs of support nearly every start. Nicknamed "King" and nobody really has an issue with that.

The case against: Gets to pitch half his games at Safeco Field, where fly balls go to die. Hasn't had an ERA under 3.00 since 2010 or a complete game since 2012. Hasn't had a no-run game yet this year. Can he pitch in a pennant race or big-game situation? Has never had to do that.

Hisashi Iwakuma
Iwakuma


The case for: Since he joined the Mariners' rotation in July 2012, he has the best ERA in the AL. Led AL pitchers in Baseball-Reference WAR last season and finished third in Cy Young voting. (See above for notes about bad defense and offense.) His splitter is a thing of beauty: Over the past two seasons batters have hit .174 against it with 99 strikeouts, eight walks and four home runs. Has handed out just four walks in seven starts.

The case against: Missed time with a finger injury this year and wasn't always the most durable pitcher back in his Japan days. No career complete games in the majors. His strikeout rate of 6.4 per nine innings is a little mediocre and he's allowed six home runs after allowing 25 last year. Isn't nicknamed "King."

Johnny Cueto
Cueto


The case for: Leads the majors with a 1.68 ERA while pitching in that bandbox in Cincinnati. That Luis Tiant-like spin-and-twirl delivery is awesome. Has three complete games and limited batters to a .151 average. His strikeout rate has increased for the third year in a row and is up to 27 percent. With his fastball/cutter/slider/changeup arsenal, he's a four-pitch pitcher and can throw any of them at any time. Has given up more than two earned runs just once so far. One of the best right-handed pickoff moves ever means he shuts down the running game -- one stolen base allowed this year after just three the previous two years (runners were 1-for-10 off him in 2012).

The case against: His .187 BABIP is simply unsustainable. ERA is helped by five unearned runs. Has had trouble staying healthy, making 24 starts in 2011 and 11 last year, so has reached 200 innings just once.

With apologies to: Anibal Sanchez, Julio Teheran, Tim Hudson, Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Mark Buehrle, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Stephen Strasburg and Sonny Gray, left off for reasons of space, previous track record, lack of a track record, or simply the belief that their hot start isn't sustainable.

Mariners kids' arrival long since overdue

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2
11:54
PM ET

We’re a little more than a third of the way through the season, but let’s relish this tidbit as we head into the season’s middle months, when moves get made and buyers and sellers are supposed to start sorting themselves out: After beating the Yankees in a mismatch between Felix Hernandez and David Phelps, the Mariners are just a half-game back in the AL wild-card race. And a game over .500. Which means while there’s a whole lot of sorting left to be done, there’s no reason to take the Mariners any less seriously than they no doubt take themselves.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mariners are getting the most value out of King Felix and Robinson Cano and a very few others -- Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders in the lineup, Chris Young in the rotation. Use WAR as a quick cheat, and that’s the extent of the guys who’ve been worth a win so far, several fewer than the A’s or Angels have to talk about. Not that WAR is the ultimate answer to anything, but it does give you the suggestion that there are more than a few people playing for the Mariners whose value is harder to define than what statistical words of praise might provide.

That’s in large part because the core of young talent in the Mariners lineup, which was supposed to have been ready to shine by now, has provided the statistical equivalent of dark matter: We know they’re there, we know they’re supposed to be important. But defining what Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley or the shortstop tandem of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin or the center fielder du jour -- it’s James Jones this month -- have added challenges easy explanation.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesEven without getting much help from the Mariners' lineup, Robinson Cano has reason to smile: They're contenders!
The Mariners are getting less than a .700 OPS not just from defense-first positions such as short and center, where they’ve been testing their prospects, but also at power positions such as first base, left field and DH. That’s no way to back up a bid to contend, and it will be on Ackley and Smoak -- and also veterans Logan Morrison and Corey Hart when they come back from the DL -- to improve upon it.

But the time for excusing youth should be over. Smoak is in his fifth season and Ackley his fourth. They aren’t kids -- they’re long since young veterans. What you see is what you get. You can at least credit Smoak for hitting away from Safeco this season, with a .765 OPS on the road so far. That's almost exactly the average production for an AL first baseman this season (.764). Average is the new up, at least where Mariners prospects are concerned.

Now, it might seem a bit unfair to pile on the Mariners’ bevvy of prospects for what they haven’t been and might never be. The only teams running younger lineups than the Mariners’ 27.3-year-old average are the Astros and Cubs, both of whom have unapologetically touched bottom in their comprehensive rebuilds. On the other hand, that same average age ties with the homegrown talent-laden Braves, who labor under all sorts of expectations of right-now contention -- and seem to be doing just fine. Guys such as Smoak and Ackley were mentioned in the same breath as prospects such as Freddie Freeman (a consensus top-20 prospect) or Jason Heyward (a consensus top 10). And while we’re on the subject of young and disappointing, keep in mind that Ackley is only a few months younger than Justin Upton and was the second overall pick in 2009 to Upton’s first overall selection in 2005. As frustrating as Upton has been for those expecting reliable greatness from one of baseball’s best streak hitters, you won’t confuse that for Ackley’s exasperating inability to come close to his rookie season .766 OPS in any of the past three seasons.

Which is why, for as young as these Mariners might seem to be right now, their time is now. Everything can be forgiven, if not forgotten, if the Mariners make this season’s September meaningful. That would be a first for a franchise that has yet to top the 85 wins they got in Jack Zduriencik’s first season as GM back in 2009. This is essentially his team, a compilation of players he inherited and chose to keep (such as Erasmo Ramirez), guys he drafted (such as Ackley, both shortstops and James Paxton) or guys he signed (Cano, Young and Fernando Rodney). If it’s going to add up to anything, ever, there’s no time like now to find out.

For the Mariners to deliver on the opportunity of their present, their best hopes might rest on what Paxton and Taijuan Walker can add on the mound behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It makes for that much more of a pitching-and-defense formula, while praying for Cano and Seager to plate enough runs, for Zunino to develop unlike all the other top touts of prospect lists past. Not to mention hoping against hope that Ackley or Smoak or Franklin or Miller finally turn into something. Realistically, what alternative is there? Trade them away to surround Cano with better goodies? No matter how much club control a team might have left over Ackley or Smoak or Franklin, whatever dollar figure you assign doesn’t amount to any value in trade if it doesn’t amount to anything on the field now. Guys who can’t play at 26 or 27 aren’t likely to play ever.

It’s easy to mock Zduriencik’s zipping from one master plan to another with all the hyperactive schemes for world domination of a Bond villain: He’s tried building a winner just about every way imaginable in his six seasons in Seattle, flitting from pitching and defense to a lineup overstuffed with veteran DHs, to trusting in his farm system, to finally, in that classic sign of late-stage, go-for-broke desperation, throwing boatloads of cash at somebody with star power when he inked Cano. In short, there is no tack he hasn’t tried. The irony is the Mariners might contend for at least a wild-card slot this season, after the former player-development guy made the big-market move and signed the superstar for a budget-busting $240 million. If it works, and if the kids contribute anything, you can bet he’ll be congratulated for it.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
video

Jerry Crasnick has a story on the great Felix Hernandez -- who is starting to become the modern-day Ernie Banks, having never appeared in the postseason. Eric and myself discuss King Felix and whether he's still one of the top five starters in baseball.
Is that such an outlandish headline? I'm not sure it is. Wood did it all in Monday's 5-1 win over the hapless Diamondbacks, pitching seven innings with nine strikeouts and no walks and going 2-for-3 with a double and three-run homer. Here's a fun tweet:



Wood hit .222 with three home runs last year, and while we won't quite declare him the new Mike Hampton yet, there are similarities in that both are/were smallish lefties who could hit (Hampton hit seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 and hit .344 the next season with three home runs).

More importantly, Wood is off to a great start on the mound (2.52 ERA), so far proving his 2013 breakout wasn't a fluke. In 25 innings, he has 28 K's and four walks and two home runs allowed. That's a big boost in his strikeout rate from 2013 -- 17.5 percent to 25.7 percent -- and if this is a real improvement then it's time to start thinking of him as an elite starter.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, while Wood and Jeff Samardzija have allowed just 14 runs in their eight starts, those two are a combined 1-4 as the Cubs are next-to-last in the NL in runs.

Other quick thoughts from Monday's action:
  • New Pirates first baseman Ike Davis hit a grand slam and then the Pirates scored runs in the eighth and ninth to beat the Reds 6-5. The Reds have an MLB-worst 5.77 bullpen ERA with an atrocious 1.72 WHIP. J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra have really struggled, so even Aroldis Chapman's return isn't an automatic fix. As for Davis, he's been plagued by inconsistency in his career, but we're not that far removed from the second half of 2012 when he hit .255/.346/.542 with 20 home runs. Who knows if it will work out, but it was a good risk by the Pirates to get him. Sure, you worry about all the strikeouts and low average you're going to get from Davis and Pedro Alvarez but they may also combine for 65 home runs.
  • Some sweet fielding plays on Monday. Loved this double play by Ruben Tejeda and Daniel Murphy for the Mets and this slick bare-handed play by Albert Pujols. Tejeda made another diving stop and out as the Mets blanked the Cardinals 2-0 behind Jenrry Mejia's 6.2 scoreless innings and Kyle Farnsworth's first save.
  • Nice 4-3 win for the Rangers over the A's on a night Yu Darvish didn't have a dominant outing, with eight hits and four walks in six innings. Fun fact: Prince Fielder has already been intentionally walked nine times, the most ever for an AL player in April. He's hitting just .205 but opposing managers still want to get a righty-righty matchup when possible.
  • Fielder's old teammate in Detroit, some guy named Miguel Cabrera, continues to struggle with a .206/.275/.333 line and one home run. It's gone relatively unnoticed because he's Miguel Cabrera and we expect him to heat up soon enough -- and the Tigers are still 9-7 after losing to John Danks on Monday -- but this is a guy who never has a bad month (last September, when he was injured, being the exception). He only has one opposite-field hit all season. Last year, 55 of his 193 hits went to right.
  • Keep an eye on Corey Dickerson, who gets a chance to play for the Rockies with Michael Cuddyer on the DL. He can hit and went 3-for-4 with one of the five home runs the Rockies hit against the Giants.
  • Things are turning ugly in Seattle. The Mariners returned home to face the Astros with Felix Hernandez pitching and put up a stinkbomb of a game for their seventh straight loss. An error by Kyle Seager in the sixth inning led to four unearned runs as Hernandez gave up three run-scoring hits with two outs. Dustin Ackley was moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and promptly went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Justin Smoak is hitting .170 after his big opening series against the Angels. Seager and Brad Miller are hitting under .200. Leadoff hitter Abraham Almonte has 28 strikeouts in 19 games. Looks like the same old Mariners.


We don’t see these matchups as often you may expect, ace versus ace, best in the game versus best in the game. For the third time in their careers, Felix Hernandez faced Yu Darvish. The first two battles, both in 2012, went to King Felix: He allowed one run in eight innings and then pitched a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem, as Darvish struggled in both outings.

Let's follow along with a running diary of the Texas Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

First inning

You certainly have to expect a low-scoring game. Darvish hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts and faces a Seattle lineup that has been shut out in three of its past six games. Hernandez has allowed six runs in his three starts with an impressive 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Brandon Wade
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect pitcher’s build, but if I could sculpt a pitcher out of Italian marble, he would look like Darvish -- tall and lean with a regal appearance, his uniform tailored perfectly. It’s a small data sample, but Darvish may be making one major change to his approach from last season, throwing more four-seam fastballs and fewer cutters. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Darvish threw 35 percent fastballs last year and 16 percent cutters. Through his first two starts, those numbers were 61 and 4. This makes sense; the cutter was his weakest pitch last year as opponents hit .271/.357/.500 against it. If he can command the four-seamer, he can ditch the cutter considering he still has his slider and curveball as wipeout pitches (plus an occasional splitter and even a big slow curve).

After a scoreless top of the inning, Hernandez takes the mound, top two buttons undone, pants legs down over the top of his shoelaces, his upper lip unshaven and a scraggly fluff of hair sprouting from his chin. Hernandez’s best weapon has been his changeup; batters are 2-for-27 against it with 18 strikeouts. It has been so good that he’s thrown it 28 percent of the time, up from 19 percent in 2013.

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Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal faced each other just four times, which seems odd to me. Marichal and Koufax were both starters from 1961 to 1966 and the Dodgers and Giants played each other 18 times a season back then, so you’d think they would have matched up more often. You’d maybe even expect the managers to purposely arrange their rotations for their aces to square off. Koufax pitched 26 times against the Giants over those six seasons and Marichal faced the Dodgers 30 times (remarkably, he never allowed more than four runs in those starts), so odds were they should have faced each other a few more times.

In the four games they did pitch against each other, Marichal didn’t even get an official plate appearance in two of them. Once, Koufax got knocked out in the first inning before Marichal hit. Another game -- the last time the two started against each other -- was Aug. 22, 1965, the infamous game when Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.

Koufax faced Bob Gibson five times, and they had some great duels. Twice, Koufax beat Gibson 1-0. He pitched a third shutout in another game.

Second inning

Nick Franklin, just called up from Tacoma, lines a first-pitch cutter into right-center for a one-out triple. Darvish strikes out Justin Smoak on a 1-2 fastball out of the strike zone but then works carefully to Dustin Ackley, walking him to face the right-handed Mike Zunino. Darvish starts out with a 94-mph fastball that Zunino takes for a strike, but the 0-1 pitch is a hanging slider in the middle of the plate and Zunino lines a soft single to center. Right pitch, bad execution. Abraham Almonte then plates Ackley, lining a 1-1 fastball into left field to make it 2-0.

Fourth inning

While Hernandez is sailing along through three innings (he started eight of the first nine batters with strikes), Darvish finds himself in a jam, thanks to some shaky defense. Justin Smoak singles past the statuesque Prince Fielder and then Zunino reaches when outfielders Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo miscommunicate on a fly ball. Almonte strikes out. Brad Miller gets ahead in the count 2-1, Darvish gets a gift call on a 2-1 curve that looks outside and then appears to strike out Miller on a good heater on the inside corner. But plate ump Ted Barrett calls it a ball to the displeasure of Darvish. The 3-2 pitch is a slider that Miller sends routinely to right field.

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Roger Clemens reached the majors in 1984, Randy Johnson in 1988. They were both in the American League through 1998 and in the National League in 2004, but they faced each other only twice, in 1992 and 1994. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez started just three times against each other, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, during Maddux’s apex. He tossed shutouts in two of those games.

According to research by RetroSheet researcher Tom Ruane, the two pitchers who faced off most often in their careers were Jim McCormick and Mickey Welch, who battled 40 times between 1880 and 1887. Since 1900, the most common matchup was between Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Three-Finger Brown, with 23. Brown’s Cubs beat Mathewson’s Giants 12 times to 11. Since World War II, it’s Warren Spahn and Bob Friend, with 21 games.

Two other Hall of Famers who pitched regularly against each other were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, with 17 duels between 1970 and 1983. And duel they did. On Sept. 24, 1972 -- the year Carlton went 27-10 with an awful Phillies team -- Seaver beat Carlton 2-1, the game decided in the eighth on an unearned run. On Opening Day 1973, Seaver won 3-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. On Opening Day 1975, Seaver beat him 2-1, the winning scoring in the bottom of the ninth. In September of 1976, Seaver won 1-0 with a four-hit shutout.

If you’re getting the idea that Seaver had Carlton’s number, it’s kind of true. Or he had the Phillies’ number. The first nine times they faced each other, Seaver went 8-0 with a no-decision. Carlton always pitched well, but Seaver seemed to bring his best stuff. Carlton did finally beat him three times, but overall Seaver went 11-3 with a 2.74 ERA while Carlton went 3-12 with a 2.77 ERA (Seaver had two blow-up starts that raised his ERA). The last time they met was Opening Day 1983. Seaver had returned to the Mets after his exile to Cincinnati, where he had gone 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 1982. But the game was at Shea Stadium. Of course Seaver had to start. He tossed six scoreless innings. The Mets won 2-0.

Sixth inning

Darvish has settled down after some early issues with baserunners but he also ran up his pitch count. Meanwhile, the King is dealing, with eight strikeouts and three hits through six. While Darvish has thrown 98 pitches through six, Felix is at 79 (55 for strikes).

If you want a good lesson on what makes Hernandez so good -- and especially so good early on this year -- is that he can throw all four of his pitches on any count. So what has Hernandez done Wednesday night? All eight of his strikeouts have come on fastballs, at least according to MLB.com -- five four-seamers and three two-seamers. The guy is amazing.

(The MLB GameDay system I’m checking could be misidentifying some of his changeups as two-seam sinkers -- you know, because who else throws a changeup that’s only a couple miles per hour slower than his fastball. Readers on Twitter say several of the strikeouts were changeups, which is probably the case. We'll see what the data says after the game.)

Seventh inning

In what’s probably his final inning, Darvish cruises with a 1-2-3 frame, including his eighth strikeout. Solid effort for Darvish on a night he didn’t appear to have his A stuff. The one pitch he’d like to have back was that slider to Zunino.

Hernandez racks up his ninth strikeout, getting Kevin Kouzmanoff on another fastball, although at 88 mph it may have been another changeup.

Eighth inning

Darvish is done, and so is Hernandez after giving up a leadoff triple to Martin. I’m a little surprised at the hook since Hernandez is only at 96 pitches and has kept the Rangers off-balance all night. Felix did not look too happy when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon took the ball from him, that’s for sure. You know this is the kind of game he at least wants to get the ball into the hands of closer Fernando Rodney.

The Rangers score a run on a sacrifice fly but Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina escape without further damage.

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In 1959, Lew Burdette and Robin Roberts faced off seven times, the last time two pitchers started that many times against each other in one season. Only one of them was much of a deal, Roberts winning 2-1 on July 4 as he scattered eight hits in a complete game. Another fun piece of data from Tom Ruane: Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson five times in 1916. There were just 18 runs scored in those five games. How would you like to find a time machine and go watch one those matchups?

Ninth inning

Stop reading, Mariners fans. Rodney on for the save. Two quick outs. Kouzmanoff with a grounder to Miller's left that he dives for but can't corral it. He was shaded way in the hole and had a long ways to go, so it was not an easy play. Rodney falls behind Mitch Moreland with two balls, sending McClendon out to the mound (probably telling him to be careful with Moreland since light-hitting Josh Wilson is on deck). Moreland walks on a 3-2 pitch. Donnie Murphy bats for Wilson and hits a routine grounder right to Miller, who tosses the ball high to Robinson Cano at second base, pulling him off the bag. Everybody safe. Wild pitch. Game tied. Martin with a soft single to left. Game over.

What can I say? In what should have been a final sentence exclaiming the brilliance of Felix Hernandez we're instead left saying poor Felix.


We have a good one tonight: Felix Hernandez versus Yu Darvish in Texas. With that matchup in mind, Eric and myself discuss the pitching matchups we'd most like to see.

Hernandez and Darvish have met just twice, both in 2012, and King Felix dominated both times. On May 21, he allowed one run in eight innings while Darvish exited early after walking six batters in four innings. On July 14, Hernandez shut out the Rangers 7-0 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. That's the second-highest Game Score of Hernandez's career, behind only his perfect game against Tampa Bay later that season.

Considering the way both pitchers are going right now -- Hernandez has allowed six runs in three starts and owns a 30-2 strikeout/walk ratio and Darvish hasn't allowed a run in two starts -- and the fact that the Mariners have been shut out three times in their past six games and the Rangers have scored one run in three of their past five, we should expect a low-scoring game.

Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.

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