SweetSpot: Felix Hernandez
SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has pitched 10 years in Seattle, winning a Cy Young (and maybe a second this year), establishing himself as the American League’s premier pitcher ... and has yet to pitch a single inning in the postseason.
But at least he finally had this Sunday. When Felix took the mound on the final day of the regular season, with the King’s Court packed full of yellow-shirted subjects and more than 40,000 fans throughout the stadium, he actually had a chance to pitch the Mariners into the playoffs. Which is far, far more than most everyone thought possible when the season began -– or when Seattle lost eight games in a row in April.
Seattle entered Sunday needing to beat the Angels and have Oakland lose to Texas in order to tie the Athletics and force a one-game playoff for the second wild card spot. King Felix accomplished the first part by pitching 5 1/3 dominant, scoreless innings to secure the American League ERA crown and lead the Mariners to a 4-1 victory. But the tumbling Athletics thwarted the second part by beating the Rangers 4-0.
The Mariners fans had been chanting "Let's go Rangers!'' so they were very disappointed when they saw the Oakland-Texas final go on the scoreboard. But the fans soon erupted in appreciative applause for the entire season. And for good reason. This was an exciting season for the Mariners, whom Seattle fans figured would not contend again until the Highway 99/waterfront tunnel project is finished (hint to non-Seattleites, that project is our version of the Big Dig.
“It was fun. It was fun all year round,’’ Felix said. “We would go down. Then we would get up. We had some struggles, but I’m proud of this team and proud of my teammates.’’
Seattle didn’t make the playoffs or even win 90 games, but the Mariners gave fans something to cheer and hope for until the final afternoon. And considering the past 13 years, that means a lot. As manager Lloyd McClendon told his team, “You’re no longer the prey. You’re the hunters.’’
“I think this was a tremendous learning experience for this ballclub, and we took a tremendous step forward,’’ McClendon said. “We’ll be better. We have a lot of work to do.
“I told you guys when I took the job this was a golden era for the Seattle Mariners and they haven’t let me down. And we’re only going to get better.’’
How does next season look? A lot like this year -- which is both good and bad.
The pitching staff, which led the league in ERA, looks solid. Felix will be back, as almost certainly will Hisashi Iwakuma (who has a team option for 2015), though comeback player of the year candidate Chris Young is a free agent. Rookie James Paxton pitched brilliantly after returning from injury. Taijuan Walker also pitched well when healthy.
And then there is the offense.
Signed to a $240 million contract, Robinson Cano was a terrific addition in the lineup, on the field and in the clubhouse while first-time All-Star Kyle Seager keeps getting better. But the rest of the lineup needs a significant upgrade. Seattle was shut out 19 times and finished last in OPS. General manager Jack Zduriencik, whose contract was extended this summer, has his work cut out for him to improve what has been a serious weakness for several seasons.
“It’s sad now that we have to go home,’’ Cano said. “You look back and say, we should have won this game or that game. But you can’t look back. You have a sour taste in your mouth, but you have to go home, work out and be ready for next season and think about what we need to get better for next year. We’re pretty close.’’
Seattle fans hope so, which is more than they usually feel at the end of most seasons.
As the Mariners took the field for the ninth inning Sunday, Earth Wind and Fire’s classic hit “September’’ played over the stadium loudspeakers while their fans danced, swayed and waved their rally towels. It was a wonderful moment, but what Seattle still awaits is an October song, like “We are the Champions.’’>
The main thing we learned was clarity: With Kansas City winning and Seattle losing, we basically know the 10 playoff teams now, barring some sort of miracle as the Royals (and Athletics) are three up on the Mariners with five games remaining. The Dodgers beat the Giants to clinch a tie for the NL West. The Pirates officially are in after beating the Braves.
On the other hand, the AL Central remains close and the Pirates are breathing some hot September breath on the necks of the Cardinals in the NL Central.
1. The Pirates clinched a playoff spot. If momentum means anything heading into the postseason, the Pirates are the team to watch as they've won 15 of 18, blowing past the Brewers and the other wild-card contenders to clinch their second straight playoff berth. Gerrit Cole allowed runs in the first and second innings to the Braves and then settled down and dominated, retiring the final 17 batters he faced. Cole was still humming late in the game: His final fastball was 97 mph. OK, it was the Braves and the Braves are horrible, but this was the Cole that Pirates fans hope to see in the playoffs. That may be in the wild-card game -- him or Francisco Liriano. Or maybe it's in the Division Series, because the Cardinals lost in extra innings to the Cubs, so now Pittsburgh is just 1.5 games behind St. Louis. The Cardinals have one more game against the Cubs before finishing with three in Arizona, with Adam Wainwright scheduled to go Sunday, if needed. The Pirates have two more in Atlanta, then three in Cincinnati.
2. Yordano Ventura is not tired. The rookie right-hander made his 29th start of the season and threw 117 pitches over seven shutout innings in Kansas City's 7-1 victory over Cleveland. His 104th pitch was clocked at 100 mph. The final batter he faced was Jose Ramirez with the bases loaded. He threw fastballs of 98, 97, 97 and 99 before pulling the string with an 88 mph changeup that Ramirez swung at and missed. How are you supposed to hit that pitch after fighting off high-octane gas in the upper 90s? Over his past 10 starts, Ventura is 7-2 with a 2.08 ERA. The control hasn't always been there -- he's averaged 4.4 walks per nine innings over that stretch -- but that fastball/changeup/curve combo has been tough to hit, with opponents hitting just .195 in those 10 games. He hasn't allowed a home run since July. (Ventura threw 79 percent fastballs Tuesday, his highest single-game percentage all season.)
OK, that's the good news, a huge win for the Royals, a huge performance from Ventura. They haven't clinched anything yet, but things are looking good. The questionable news: Why was he allowed to throw 117 pitches when the Royals were up 7-0? He was pitching on five days' rest, and I know we can overreact to pitch counts that aren't necessarily that extreme (we've become so conservative, thinking 100 pitches is some magical number when it's probably not). Still, with a young pitcher in his first season -- having thrown 30 more innings than last year and a guy you're going to possibly need in the playoffs -- why leave him for his season-high in pitches in late September? This didn't seem like the game, or the moment, for manager Ned Yost to do this, even if Ventura was throwing 100 in the seventh.
3. Felix Hernandez looked very tired. This was the saddest of possible scenes for Mariners fans: Hernandez, trying to get into the playoffs for the first time in his wonderful career, essentially pitching the Mariners out of the playoffs by throwing 43 painful, heart-wrenching pitches in the fifth inning against the Blue Jays, leaving when he was unable to even get that third out. It was the first time all season he hadn't gone five innings and just the second time in two seasons. The inning began with Dalton Pompey, a kid barely out of A-ball, homering on a flat 92 mph fastball over the middle of the plate and ended with Felix walking Pompey on a 3-2 curveball in the dirt.
A few days ago the Mariners had a 3.01 staff ERA and a chance to become the first team since the 1989 Dodgers to post an ERA under 3.00. Now the Nationals may do that with a 3.01 ERA, while Seattle's has jumped to 3.23 after allowing 42 runs their past four games. The Mariners have gone 5-11 over their past 16 games. If they'd simply gone 8-8, they'd be tied with the Royals and A's.
4. The Orioles named Chris Tillman their Game 1 starter. No surprise there, as Tillman owns a 2.21 ERA since June 10. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his 10 previous starts and has held opponents to a .197/.240/.303 slash line over those 10 games. In other words, Tillman has been pitching like the ace everyone says the Orioles don't have. The Orioles beat the Yankees 5-4 as Nelson Cruz hit his 40th home run. But they remain three games behind the Angels for the best record, meaning the Orioles likely will face the AL Central winner while the Angels will face the wild-card game winner.
5. The Dodgers are going to win the NL West. The late game on the West Coast featured plenty of fireworks, including a benches-clearing meet-and-greet in the first inning after Madison Bumgarner hit Yasiel Puig in the foot. Puig had been hit on the elbow Monday, but he may have been thinking back to May 9, when he homered off Bumgarner, flipped his bat and Bumgarner greeted him at home plate with some choice words that didn't include inviting Puig to dinner. Anyway, score this one for Puig, because two batters later Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer to center for a 3-0 lead. Bumgarner would hit a two-run homer himself, but that was all Zack Greinke gave up as the Dodgers held on 4-2.
The Dodgers have clinched a tie for the division, and Clayton Kershaw goes Wednesday. I'm thinking there may be some champagne popped at Dodger Stadium then.
And he didn't get the win. The Mariners did finally capture the victory when Logan Morrison hit a three-run homer in the ninth, but Hernandez was left with a no-decision.
That's now three no-decisions this season for Hernandez in games in which he allowed zero runs, on top of four no-decisions and a loss when he allowed one run. Plus two no-decisions and two losses when he allowed two runs. You get the idea: The Mariners don't score many runs for their King.
From ESPN Stats & Info: This was the 16th time in his career that Hernandez has fanned 10 or more batters, allowed zero earned runs and did not receive the win. The pitchers with the most such games over the past 100 years:
Nolan Ryan: 19
Chris Short: 18
Vida Blue: 17
Felix Hernandez: 16
Jake Peavy: 16
Sam McDowell: 16
Bob Veale: 16
Also, from ESPN Stats & Info: The Mariners have scored three runs or fewer in more than half of his career starts. Highest percentages since 1969:
Jon Matlack: 54.1 percent (172 of 318)
Steve Rogers: 52.7 percent (207 of 393)
Felix Hernandez: 52.5 percent (158 of 301)
Mike Scott: 52.1 percent (166 of 319)
Nolan Ryan: 51.7 percent (390 of 754)
Interesting list. Matlack spent his best years in the 1970s with some mediocre Mets clubs, pitching in Shea Stadium, a low run-scoring environment. In 1974, he tossed seven shutouts and still went just 13-15. He then finished with some bad Rangers teams in the late '70s and early '80s. Rogers pitched his entire career with the Expos from 1973 to 1985. They were well above .500 from 1979 to 1985, so a lot of those games must have come early in his career. He led the NL in losses in 1974 (even though he was an All-Star that year) and 1976, when he had a 3.21 ERA. Scott and Ryan both pitched in the Astrodome, where runs were hard to come by. Ryan spent a lot of years in Anaheim, another pitchers' park, and he had some awful offenses behind him in his early Angels seasons. He went 19-16 in 1972 for a team that averaged just 2.93 runs per game, an offense that makes the 2014 Mariners look like the 1927 Yankees.
Then we have Jeff Samardzija of the A's. On Wednesday, he tossed eight scoreless innings, left with a slim 1-0 lead and then saw Sean Doolittle cough up the lead in the ninth. He's now 6-12 despite a 2.98 ERA. You know how many pitchers have ever started 30 games, had an ERA below 3.00 and won six or fewer games? One! Some poor sap named Fred Glade for the 1905 St. Louis Browns. His nickname: Lucky.
(Actually, Glade wasn't some poor sap. He came from a wealthy family who owned a milling business that would eventually become part of ConAgra.)
Samardzija has allowed zero runs five times this year -- twice with the A's, three times with the Cubs -- and has received a no-decision each time. He's allowed one run five times and is just 2-0 in those games.
Going back to 1969, here are the pitchers with the most starts in a season of allowing no runs without getting the win:
Dustin Hermanson, 1997: 6 (33.1 IP)
Roger Clemens, 2005: 6 (40 IP)
Clayton Kershaw, 2009: 6 (38.2 IP)
Jimmy Key, 1985: 5 (27 IP)
Chris Young, 2007: 5 (25 IP)
Jeff Samardzija, 2014: 5 (35 IP)
Samardzija has eight games where he allowed no runs or one run and failed to get a win. Since 1969, two pitchers have had nine such games in a season: Kershaw in 2009 and Jose DeLeon in 1991. (Felix also has eight such games this year.)
Talk about two unlucky pitchers.
And yet we still hear some people talk about how there is an "art" to winning games.
Sure, it's called pitching well and getting run support.
Pitcher W-L ERA R/9 IP H BB SO HR OPS FIP Felix GS bWAR fWAR
Felix 14-5 2.14 2.47 219.0 160 41 225 15 .551 2.59 20 65.5 6.8 5.8
Kluber 16-9 2.54 2.87 219.2 195 48 244 14 .631 2.47 17 61.7 6.3 6.5
Sale 12-3 1.99 2.31 163.0 116 34 192 11 .543 2.46 11 66.4 6.5 5.3
Lester 15-10 2.45 3.06 205.2 181 46 206 15 .633 2.81 13 60.8 4.3 5.7
Scherzer 16-5 3.26 3.34 207.1 184 58 237 18 .661 2.88 12 59.3 5.6 5.2
(Some of the numbers above: OPS is OPS allowed; FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching; Felix -- named in honor of Felix Hernandez -- is the number of starts a pitcher had where he went at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer; GS is average Game Score; and bWAR and fWAR are from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.)
A few weeks ago, Hernandez appeared to be a Cy Young lock, with that stretch of 17 Felixes in a row, an all-time record. Over his last six starts, however, he has just one win and a 3.03 ERA. OK, that's not bad when your bad stretch still produces a lower ERA than Max Scherzer has on the season. Hernandez's main culprit in this period has been the home run: After allowing seven in his first 25 starts, he's allowed eight in those six, including four in one game to the Nationals.
Still, this little slump has allowed others to jump into the race. Corey Kluber had another outstanding effort on Tuesday, striking out a career-high 14 to earn his 16th win and lower his ERA to 2.54. He has a 1.84 ERA since the All-Star break and his FanGraphs WAR has also edged ahead of Hernandez's. While Hernandez's changeup is regarded with awe, it's time to view Kluber's curve with same level of appreciation, as opponents are hitting .094 against it in 198 plate appearances with no home runs and 113 strikeouts.
Chris Sale leads the AL with a 1.99 ERA, despite pitching in a tougher park for pitchers than Hernandez. He's closing in on Hernandez in both bWAR and fWAR and starts Wednesday against the Royals. The Condor's slider is reminiscent of another tall, slim lefty: Randy Johnson. Opponents are hitting .135 off it with just four extra-base hits (two home runs).
Jon Lester is close behind in ERA, innings and WAR, but he's also allowed 14 unearned runs, so his actual runs allowed per nine is significantly higher than Hernandez's. Scherzer's ERA is higher but he has solid peripherals; keep in mind that his ERA was hurt by that 10-run outing to the Royals -- all earned runs.
One category I like to look at is dominant performances. That's why I like the "Felix" -- if you go seven and allow two runs or fewer, you should win, or you've at least put your team in position to win. It's a better quick-and-dirty method than quality starts (six innings, three runs or fewer), which don't work as well in this era of depressed offense.
As you can see, Lester and Scherzer trail Hernandez significantly in that area. They've been terrific, but I feel comfortable knocking them off the list.
The problem I have in giving Sale the edge over Hernandez is that large gap in innings -- Hernandez has pitched 56 more innings. So why is Sale so close in WAR? The quality of opposition has been about the same (4.35 runs scored per game on average for Hernandez's opponents, 4.28 for Sale's), so it's all about park effects. But Felix has a 2.16 ERA at home and 2.11 on the road. This isn't a Sandy Koufax type of situation, where Hernandez derives an obvious and large benefit from Safeco Field. Maybe Sale has been slightly better on a per-inning basis, but I can't get over that gap in innings and the benefit has created in resting the bullpen.
It could come down to wins, especially if Kluber gets up to 18 by the end of the season and Felix remains stuck at 14 or 15. But we probably all know the tough luck Felix has pitched in this year. Hernandez has seven games where's he allowed no runs or zero runs, tied for most in the majors (with Jeff Samardzija and Hector Santiago). Sale has six such games and Kluber four. If we increase the runs allowed to two, Hernandez has had 11 such starts where he didn't get the win, compared to eight for Sale and seven for Kluber.
I still think Felix is the guy. But it's close enough that these final two starts for each pitcher could make a difference.
Dunn had played 1985 major-league games over 14 seasons and none of them in the playoffs, the most among active players. The wait to make the playoffs has made his wait to reach the big show -- a relatively short four years and 343 games in the minors -- seem like a flash. So the potential to finally play baseball rather than golf in October was one of the reasons why the big slugger, who announced recently that he plans to retire after the season, approved his trade from the White Sox to the A's on Aug 31. Despite the A's recent swoon, they still have a 92 percent chance of making it into baseball's postseason tournament, according to coolstandings.com (which we use on ESPN).
But Dunn's not the only veteran with a decent chance of fulfilling a playoff dream. Several seasoned players stand a better than even chance of seeing October action for the first time: The Royals’ Scott Downs and Josh Willingham, the Orioles' Nick Markakis, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm and the Nationals' Scott Hairston.
Some of those players have come close. Dunn's best previous opportunity came after the Reds traded him to the Diamondbacks in August of 2008 to help them chase the Dodgers. But the 44-game rental wasn't enough as Arizona fell two games short of the NL West title. Four years later, Dunn's White Sox led the AL Central for most of the second half of 2012 but faltered in the season's final week and finished out of the money by three games.
Markakis, on the other hand, has actually played for a team that made the playoffs. It's just that injury prevented him from playing during the postseason. With less than a month remaining in the Orioles' wild-card season of 2012 season, C.C. Sabathia broke Markakis' left thumb with a pitch, sidelining the right fielder for the team's wild-card game and five Division Series games.
Willingham is a different story. Despite playing for five different clubs in his 11-year career, he hasn't come close to the playoffs. Heading into this season, Willingham's teams have languished with a .438 winning percentage and finished an average of 20 games back of their division leader. So when he came over from the last-place Twins to the first-place Royals on Aug. 11, he was in unfamiliar territory. If the Royals do hold on and win the Central, though, Willingham isn't a sure thing for the playoffs: He only recently returned to the lineup after having been out since Aug. 29 with a sore back.
Willingham's Kansas City teammate Bruce Chen broke in with the Braves when fall ball was as much of a certainly on their schedule as spring training. Chen was part of the NL East title-winning clubs in 1998 and 1999, but didn't make the playoff roster. He played most of the 2014 season with the playoff-hunting Royals, but found out last week that the Royals designated him for assignment, shelving his playoff dream after 16 seasons.
Players can use their beleaguered teammates' pursuit of the playoffs as motivation. Markakis' outfield mate Adam Jones claims the team is "still [angry] about" Sabathia's pitch. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to teams rallying around long-suffering stars: He managed the Yankees in 1995 when the team won their final 11 of 12 games and 26 of 33 to at last take Don Mattingly to the playoffs in his final season. And this year, Mattingly’s Dodgers team includes pitcher Jamey Wright, who is in his 19th season but only last year saw the the playoffs (with Tampa Bay).
But if the A's plan to use Dunn’s quest as a rallying cry for their own, the Cardinals and Pirates will have to look to motivators other than helping forbearing teammates realize a dream. That's because those NL Central contenders simply don't have many veterans who haven't played October baseball. Their longest-tenured players without playoff experience are Peter Bourjos and Ike Davis, respectively, each 27 years old and in only his fifth major-league season.
Given a reprieve from a playoff-less career, Donnie Baseball went out with a .440 OBP and .708 SLG in the Bombers' five-game 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners. As Mattingly later said, "I would have been disappointed had I not gotten at least that one chance to play in the postseason, because you really wanna see how you handle it. And I did get that chance."
It’s a swan song that Adam Dunn would like to emulate this year. Will he -- and others -- get the chance?
Longest-tenured vets who have never appeared in postseason for playoff contenders
Athletics -- Adam Dunn, 14 seasons in majors
Royals -- Scott Downs, 13 seasons
Braves -- Aaron Harang, 13 seasons
Dodgers -- Kevin Correia, 12
Blue Jays -- R.A. Dickey, 12
Nationals -- Scott Hairston, 11
Mariners -- Felix Hernandez, 10
Brewers -- Zach Duke, 10
Orioles -- Nick Markakis, 9
Tigers -- Rajai Davis, 9
Angels -- Chris Iannetta, 9
Yankees -- Brandon McCarthy, 9
Indians -- Scott Atchison, 8
Giants -- Yusmeiro Petit, 7
Cardinals -- Peter Bourjos, 5
Pirates -- Ike Davis, 5
Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.
For the second day in a row, the A's blew a ninth-inning lead, as Tyler Flowers of the White Sox homered off Eric O'Flaherty with two outs to tie the game and then homered again in the 12th off Jesse Chavez to win it. Doolittle threw a bullpen session on Monday and will face hitters on Wednesday, hoping for a return at the end of the week. The A's have now lost six games they've led heading into the ninth inning (the major league average is three) and their wild-card lead is down to one game over Seattle and 1.5 games over Detroit. Brandon Moss hasn't homered since July 24, a span of 113 at-bats during which he's hitting .159. Maybe it's not exactly desperate times in Oakland, but it's starting to feel like desperate times.
2. Even when he's mediocre, King Felix is pretty good.
Felix Hernandez scuffled through six innings against the Astros, walking four for the second time this season and giving up five hits. But he kept the Astros off the board in getting a no-decision. The Mariners broke open a 1-1 tie in the eighth on Brad Miller's two-run triple to win for the sixth time in seven games. Still, Felix hasn't been quite as dominant over his past five starts, as he's allowed seven home runs and has a 23/9 strikeout/walk ratio in 31.2 innings. He'll face the A's this weekend and the Mariners will hope to see the Felix who had that memorable 17-start stretch where he went seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer each outing.
3. Big night for the Pirates.
With a 6-4 win over the Phillies, combined with losses by the Brewers and Braves, the Pirates increased their lead for the second wild card to 1.5 games over those two clubs. While Jeff Locke pitched seven solid innings -- three hits, one run, nine K's -- it's the Pittsburgh offense that remains underrated. They're third in the NL in runs (just two behind the Nationals for second-most) and second in wOBA. Last year's Pirates were all about pitching, defense and Andrew McCutchen, but this year's lineup runs much deeper. Starling Marte has been huge of late. Since returning from a concussion on Aug. 5, he's hit .342/.402/.575 in 32 games, with 15 extra-base hits, getting on base and adding power from the leadoff spot.
4. Javier Baez is going to have to some interesting projections for 2015.
Baez went 0-for-4 as the Cubs lost 8-0 to the Blue Jays ... although he did strike out just once after whiffing 10 times in his previous three games. His batting average in 34 games is down to .165 and he has 62 strikeouts in 140 at-bats. Yes, he's just 21. Yes, the raw power is off the charts. But 62 strikeouts -- with just eight walks -- in 140 at-bats? That's crazy terrible. That's not even Mark Reynolds territory. Not surprisingly, among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Baez has the highest swing-and-miss percentage at 42.9 percent. Astros rookie George Springer has the second-highest at 41.1 percent. Springer, however, has hit .231/.336/.468 compared to Baez's .165/.209/.350. The big difference? Baez has a chase rate on pitches outside the zone of 40.6 percent compared to Springer's 23.3 percent. Again, Baez is three years younger than Springer, so he has time to learn the strike zone; but if he doesn't, pitchers are going to continue exploiting his aggressiveness.
5. Victor Martinez is the best hitter in the game right now.
After going 3-for-5 as the Tigers pounded the Royals 9-4 in the first game of their big series, Martinez leads the majors in wOBA, just head of Jose Abreu, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. In the park-adjusted wRC+, he's also first. He's hitting .337. He has power (already with a career-high 30 home runs). He rarely strikes out (just 39 K's in 570 plate appearances). Obviously, he doesn't have much defensive value as he's started just 30 games in the field, 28 of those at first base, but shouldn't he be a factor in the MVP voting? Not saying he should win, but he's a good top-five candidate. Oh ... doesn't Tuesday feel like a big game for the Royals? Jason Vargas versus Max Scherzer. Should be a fun one.
But now it's crunch time and the Mariners need Felix more than ever. They had lost their previous two series. A loss on Wednesday would mean a third straight series loss. The wild-card picture was starting to look a little gloomy. Then there's Felix's recent September history:
2013: Missed three weeks with an oblique injury.
2012: Went 0-4 in six starts with a 6.62 ERA and .342 average allowed.
2011: Despite extra rest between starts, he allowed 30 hits in 16 1/3 innings over his final three outings.
Fatigue? Boredom? Either way, it's been three bad Septembers in a row.
Matched up against Jon Lester on Wednesday, Felix was back in a groove, throwing eight innings of three-hit baseball. Trouble was, one of those hits was a fourth-inning home run to Adam Dunn and Lester took a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning. Hernandez has been down this road many times in his career. He had allowed one run 70 times in his career, and won barely half those games (37). Five times he had allowed one run and lost.
Then, in the span of three pitches, it turned for the Mariners. In the seventh, Kyle Seager led off with a long home run to right off a 3-1 fastball. Two pitches later, Corey Hart, just off the disabled list, lined a fastball out to left field. Hernandez tossed two more scoreless innings, Fernando Rodney had a 1-2-3 ninth and the Mariners had a big win, climbing one game behind Detroit for the second wild card, pending the evening results (and just 3.5 games behind the A's).
One start doesn't mean Hernandez is back, any more than three mediocre starts meant he was headed for a bad final month. But it certainly feels like the Mariners need to win these Hernandez games. It's not as simple as "As Felix goes, so go the Mariners," but as a team desperate for its first playoff trip since 2001, you want your ace to carry you every fifth game. Today, the King did just that.
That seems like a generation ago.
Last September, there were seven starts across the majors made on three days' rest, but all seven came following a relief appearance, and the best guy to do so was Tom Milone of the A's. In fact, there were only 37 starts all season made on three days' rest. The only one made by whom I'll label a "top" starter was Matt Moore of the Tampa Bay Rays. He started on May 31 but pitched only one inning and then started on three days' rest (and lasted just two innings).
In just a few short years, we've gone from "can an ace pitch on three days' rest if needed down the stretch to help our team get into the postseason?" to "should we give our ace more rest?"
Take Felix Hernandez. The leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award was scheduled to start Wednesday against the Texas Rangers, but Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon instead pushed him back to Friday against the Washington Nationals, meaning he'll be starting on six days' rest instead of four since Seattle had an off day on Thursday. McClendon said he wants to give all of his starters the two extra days of rest as the team heads into the stretch run. The decision resulted in some controversy and discussion across TV and radio on Thursday, as Erasmo Ramirez was called up from Triple-A and got bombed in a 12-4 loss to the lowly Rangers.
It's also not the first time McClendon has pushed Hernandez back from his regular four days of rest. Back in July, he held him back a day so he'd have Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young -- his three best starters -- lined up to face the A's. That was a strategic decision, and the Mariners did win two of three in that series, although Seattle lost a "bullpen" game 4-2 in the series finale to the Minnesota Twins.
In early August, McClendon gave his starters an extra day, telling Greg Johns of MLB.com, "Every chance I get to give them an extra day, I'm going to do it. I think we've done OK with it. Last time I checked, we had the best pitching in the American League, so why break something that's not broken? Keep doing it. Keep resting them. I want to protect them."
In the first half, Hernandez made 12 of his 19 starts on four days of rest (not including his Opening Day start) and the other seven on five days of rest. But since the All-Star break, Hernandez's days of rest have gone: seven, five, four, five, five, four, five and now six.
I'm not necessarily knocking McClendon for this. As he said, he believes he's helping his staff stay strong. Considering the injury histories of Young (extensive) and Iwakuma (he was never completely healthy in consecutive seasons in Japan), he's not pushing Felix back just to keep Felix strong.
But the side effect is clear: In the end, you're still trading a Felix Hernandez start for an Erasmo Ramirez start, and that's a huge, huge drop-off. At the end of the season, those extra days of rest mean you're going to miss an extra Felix start or two you could have otherwise received.
(For what it's worth, in his career, Felix has a 3.12 ERA on four days' rest, 3.08 on five days' rest and 2.93 on six or more, so the difference is negligible. Now, you or McClendon can take those numbers for what they're worth; maybe they'd be predictive for 2014, maybe not. Throughout the majors in 2014, the numbers are 3.83 on four days, 3.81 on five days and 4.11 on six days, not exactly evidence that more rest helps, which, again, doesn't mean that it doesn't keep the pitchers stronger for the stretch run.)
It's an interesting tactical decision for teams to make. The A's pushed Sonny Gray back an extra day for his Thursday start against the Los Angeles Angels, giving Drew Pomeranz the start on Wednesday. But Pomeranz is better than Ramirez and the A's also get Gray going against the Angels instead of the Houston Astros. Gray is also in his first full season in the majors, and there is some intent to limit his innings a bit.
With Adam Wainwright struggling since the All-Star break, and perhaps a little fatigued after throwing more innings last season than any pitcher in baseball, there has been talk the St. Louis Cardinals will give him an extra day or two before his next start, as six of his past seven starts have come on four days of rest. But the Cardinals don't necessarily have a great option to step in for a spot start.
It's easy to suggest managers need to ride their best pitcher, much like the Brewers did six years ago with Sabathia. Is that realistic? It doesn't seem like it. Even with the strict limits on pitch counts (Hernandez doesn't even have a complete game this year), managers are more cautious than ever in how they handle their rotations.
In the Mariners' case, however, what if McClendon looks up after the final day of the regular season and sees the Mariners one game short of the wild card?
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.)
But is he one of baseball's top 10 starters right now?
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
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
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:
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:
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.
- 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!