Don’t Worry About Felix

Dave · September 12, 2008 at 1:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

After reading Jeff Sullivan’s Hey Felix, Do Better post the other day, I got thinking – certainly, there’s been a few pitchers who have come up early to exceeding amounts of hype, had some early success, but never developed into the Cy Young pitchers that people thought they could become. After all, young pitchers are unpredictable, so clearly there’d be some busts along with some booms.

So I checked, using Baseball Reference’s invaluable Play Index. I told the query to give me every pitcher who had thrown at least 540 innings from ages 20 to 22 in the majors with a strikeout rate of at least 7 K/9 IP. Basically, I just wanted a list of all the guys who pitched three full years before they turned 23 and had strikeout stuff at that age.

From 1901 to 2008, here’s the entire list.

Dwight Gooden
Bob Feller
Bert Blyleven
Frank Tanana
Dennis Eckersley
Felix Hernandez
CC Sabathia

Out of the seven guys on the list, there’s a couple of hall of famers, a guy who should be in the hall of fame, a guy who would have been had he avoided cocaine, Frank Tanana, and the two active pitchers. Tanana is clearly the worst guy on the list, and he racked up 240 wins as a slightly better than average pitcher who spent 21 years in the majors.

Sabathia’s a pretty good guy to look at the next time you find yourself frustrated with Felix’s development. In his age 20 to 22 seasons, he was significantly worse than Felix has been, and I’d say he’s turned out just fine.

I don’t really disagree with that much of what Jeff said, but there’s also the other hand – he’s the best young pitcher we’ve seen in 20 years. It’s okay to be frustrated with his inconsistency, but in the end, the accurate perspective is that Felix is off to a Hall Of Fame start to his career.


44 Responses to “Don’t Worry About Felix”

  1. MarinerDan on September 12th, 2008 1:19 pm

    I do think people lose sight sometimes of just how young Hernandez is. We all want him to be Cy Young every night but we have to keep our expectations in check. He will be the best pitcher ever to wear a Mariners uniform — and I am including Randy Johnson and Gaylord Perry in that statement!

  2. Dave on September 12th, 2008 1:23 pm

    Randy Johnson is the best left-handed pitcher in the history of baseball. I love Felix, but it’s unlikely that anyone ever takes the mantle from Randy as the best Mariner pitcher of all time.

  3. lokiforever on September 12th, 2008 1:29 pm

    History of Baseball? Koufax? Hubbell?

  4. coasty141 on September 12th, 2008 1:32 pm

    Koufax only had 4-5 years at a HOF level.

  5. Dave on September 12th, 2008 1:32 pm

    Johnson’s better than both.

  6. Jeff Sullivan on September 12th, 2008 1:37 pm

    If it weren’t for that stupid-good 2005 I’d probably be ecstatic with Felix’s development. Curse him for setting the bar so high so fast.

  7. coasty141 on September 12th, 2008 1:41 pm

    -Blyleven not being in the HOF really shows how great the election process is.

    -Dwight Gooden’s minor league career has some pretty amazing stat lines. Just imagine how hyped a player would be if they racked up the K’s like Dwight did as an minor league player.

  8. msb on September 12th, 2008 1:51 pm

    I do think people lose sight sometimes of just how young Hernandez is.

    with all of the “young” pitching that finally got here this season, Felix is still the youngest starter on the staff.

  9. Joe on September 12th, 2008 2:10 pm

    And even Cy Young winners have the occasional bad outing, sometimes even in their Cy Young seasons. There isn’t a pitcher in the Hall of Fame who didn’t get rocked on a few nights now and then (especially early in their careers). And most of them were still in the minors at Felix’s age.

    And just look at how long it took Randy Johnson to become Randy Johnson (Felix has what, another seven years?)

  10. CCW on September 12th, 2008 2:22 pm

    I would say that the good FAR outweighs the bad when it comes to Felix’s performance thus far in his career. The list that Dave posts is particularly interesting because it only includes guys who pitched 3 full years. There are many many other pitchers who had the same kind of potential at the same age but suffered a serious injury before they got to 3 years. That Felix has not suffered a significant injury is a huge positive, and is a great positive indicator for his future health. If a power pitcher can make it through his age 20-24 years without breaking, he is much more likely to enjoy long-term health than a guy who’s arm can’t make it through that injury nexus.

  11. MarinerDan on September 12th, 2008 2:23 pm

    And just look at how long it took Randy Johnson to become Randy Johnson (Felix has what, another seven years?)

    Exactly my point. I really believe Hernandez has a good chance of being better than Johnson — and Dave is right about him being (one of) the best LHP in the history of the game — over his career because of how much earlier he got started. Then again, Johnson hung on a hell of a long time.

  12. bob montgomery on September 12th, 2008 2:34 pm

    From 1901 to 2008, here’s the entire list.

    That’s a little misleading, since pre-1940s (or so), pitchers with strikeout stuff didn’t strike out 7 K/9 IP.

    Take Lefty Grove for an example; he led the league in strikeouts for seven straight years while never once reaching 7 K/9 IP.

    But that’s a minor, minor quibble, since comparing a 2000s pitcher to a 1920s pitcher is silly anyway. The relevant comparisons are the guys in your list.

  13. mln on September 12th, 2008 2:35 pm

    King Felix is still a prince–albeit the Mariners’ bright shining prince.

    But one day, that prince will assume his rightful title as King.

    And all his subjects far and wide will worship at his feet….

  14. SonOfZavaras on September 12th, 2008 3:08 pm

    I’d really like to say to the guys who keep on harping about Felix: LEAVE HIM ALONE. The guy’s going to have 40 victories in the bigs before he’s 23 years old. Twenty-three.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but that plus a relatively clean slate of major injuries just makes me wanna grin. If I’m the GM, one of my first priorities is figuring out just how long can I sign him for- don’t even let him SNIFF free agency- and then putting together a team around him that’ll make him wanna stay.

    Just because we’ve seen him for a few years, everybody expects him to make people forget Nolan Ryan ever lived by now. C’mon! look at the teams Felix has played on- not the easiest to cut your teeth on, wouldn’t you say? And it took Nolan Ryan four years before he got to any kind of Cy Young-caliber level (he started in ’69 with the Mets and got to 20-win staus in 1973 and ’74)…Randy Johnson took well over five full years IN THE MAJORS before he won a Cy Young Award.

    Bottom line: The best is yet to come. We’ve only seen the glimpses of what will happen with Felix Hernandez. And me, I’m willing to bet 2009 is when Felix Hernandez comes into no-doubt-about-it elite status.

  15. Steve T on September 12th, 2008 3:14 pm

    You know, if Felix only turns into Frank Tanana, I’ll be pretty happy. Tanana was no Steve Carlton, maybe, but he was a hell of a good pitcher for a hell of a long time, more than four thousand innings.

    Lefty Grove is the best left-hander of all time. Scratch that; he’s the best PITCHER of all time.

  16. SonOfZavaras on September 12th, 2008 3:15 pm

    BTW, notes on Johnson vs. Koufax…On the premise of career longevity and sustained excellence, Johnson gets the nod as being better than Koufax.

    But, if there was ONE GAME I HAD TO WIN, and I have the choice of either of them at their peak?

    I start Koufax.

  17. great gonzalez on September 12th, 2008 3:16 pm

    Other than longevity and related statistics (like career strikeouts), how is Randy Johnson better than Sandy Koufax?

  18. SonOfZavaras on September 12th, 2008 3:28 pm

    Gonzalez, it’s the only appreciable quality in which he IS better than Koufax. Both had overwhelming velocity, both had a superior out-pitch. Koufax had his curve (which many of Koufax’s contemporaries maintain as the best EVER)and Johnson had his slider.

    In their peaks, if either one of them had BOTH pitches working on any given start, the other team could just mail in the game results. No chance at all.

    The reason why I start Koufax over Johnson in a “one-game-I-have-to-win” scenario is that while Johnson has performed generally well in big games, Koufax was KOUFAX when you really needed him to be A-1 for the team.

  19. SonOfZavaras on September 12th, 2008 3:35 pm

    I think Lefty Grove as the best lefty, let alone the best pitcher of all time, is highly, highly debatable. Just on the surface of it.

    But, while I know Grove’s basic career numbers, I’d have to do some research in the right areas to really validate that doubt. So….more on that in a bit.

    But I will say, from what I’ve heard, Grove is one of several players from his era that would’ve excelled in today’s game…or ANY era.

  20. awolfgang on September 12th, 2008 3:42 pm

    one word…MULLET

  21. Jeff Sullivan on September 12th, 2008 3:43 pm

    How isn’t he?

  22. Pete on September 12th, 2008 3:49 pm

    It’s true, Unit is the best lefty ever. I didn’t even think there was an argument on this one. Hmm.

  23. marc w on September 12th, 2008 3:51 pm

    Great reminder, Dave.
    That Felix is above average as an AL starter from ages 20-22 should never be used AGAINST him.
    We all have insanely high expectations of the guy, but we need to focus on how good he already is, and the fact that if you’re talented enough to do what he’s done at his age, he’s likely to improve going forward.

    I do wish he’d flash the ‘royal curve,’ as Jeff Sullivan calls it, once in a while.

  24. Gomez on September 12th, 2008 3:54 pm

    Yeah, it’s easy to forget that pitchers at Felix’s age typically aren’t capable of doing what he can do every 5 days… and many never become that capable.

    Some elements of Felix are frustrating, and worth bringing up to call them to attention. But Felix is still one of the finest pitching talents to come through this organization, and there’s still a ton of upside.

  25. seank100 on September 12th, 2008 3:55 pm

    Matthew has a nice piece over at FanGraphs about how a player’s spring stats, good or bad, can set our expectations for the year.

    I think on a larger scale the same can be said of Felix’s 2005 performance. Perhaps the 2005 Felix is what we expect every time.

  26. vj on September 12th, 2008 4:09 pm

    Seatank, here’s hopping that Morrow’s first start was not a similar tease…

  27. vj on September 12th, 2008 4:22 pm

    I tried to emulate Dave’s research (wanted to play with the criteria, e.g. 400 innings instead of 540) and find Sam McDowell on the top of my list. His career was not all that remarkable.

  28. Steve T on September 12th, 2008 4:30 pm

    Oh goodie, the Sandy Koufax argument rears its head again.

    There is no aspect of baseball history on which analysts and fans of a certain age (like my late father) are further apart in comprehension than in the relative value of Sandy Koufax versus [insert any of the 20-odd better pitchers than Koufax here].

    Koufax was a great, great pitcher, but his supporters tend to forget that he pitched in an extreme pitcher’s park in an extreme pitcher’s era, when teams struggled to score two or three runs against even the Jarrod Washburns of the era.

    Koufax’s value is, of course, entirely in his peak, since his career was short, and fairly mediocre in its early years. But, if you look at the ballparks — Ebbets Field versus the Coliseum and Dodgers Stadium — it’s clear that the environment he pitched in made as much difference as his ability.

    He was a great, great pitcher. But so were Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal in that same era. If Koufax was better than they, and he might have been, it was NOTHING like the massive gap between Randy Johnson and his also-rans, or Pedro Martinez and his, or Roger Clemens and his, or Greg Maddux and his. They put up superficially Koufax-like numbers in leagues damn near twice as easy to hit in. Even just taking into account peak value (five seasons, say) I’d take any of those over Koufax, and quite a few others besides.

    But I recognize also that there is less chance of a Koufax partisan recognizing any of that than there is of George Bush making a major policy speech extolling the virtues of injecting heroin directly into the carotid artery.

  29. great gonzalez on September 12th, 2008 4:51 pm

    Pretty dumb of me not to consider league-average etc. Expecting Dubya to endorse main-lining.

    Koufax is still a funky badass Jew, though.

  30. Tom in Edmonds on September 12th, 2008 5:06 pm

    Felix will mature into his talent. The real question in my mind is will he be signable by this train wreck? Can we keep him?

  31. Grizz on September 12th, 2008 5:24 pm

    Frank Tanana is on the list because prior to an arm injury during his age 23 season in 1977, he was a power pitcher:

    Promoted to the majors shortly after his 20th birthday in 1973, Tanana was know for a fastball that flirted with 100 MPH. A July, 1977 arm injury that came after throwing 14 consecutive complete games caused Tanana to dramatically change his style, and he became a crafty control artist for the next 16 seasons.

    “I hurt my labrum and shoulder,” Tanana said. “Back then, they didn’t even know what a labrum was.”

    Baseball Digest (Dec. 2006).

    Despite the loss of velocity, he carved out a long, decent career as a command and control guy.

  32. Ralph_Malph on September 12th, 2008 5:48 pm

    OK, ERA+ isn’t a very good stat but it’s all I could find on short notice. Koufax’ best ERA+ season was his last, at 190. Here are his top 5 ERA+ seasons:


    Johnson’s best 5:

    (and 181, 177, 154 his next 3)

    Koufax was a fantastic pitcher. He posted incredible numbers — but you have to remember they were posted in a time when offense was at historic lows. Johnson was (past tense) a better pitcher than Koufax both at his peak and in longevity.

  33. mln on September 12th, 2008 5:49 pm

    “A July, 1977 arm injury that came after throwing 14 consecutive complete games caused Tanana to dramatically change his style, and he became a crafty control artist for the next 16 seasons.”

    Whoa! 14 consecutive complete games! I had to read that again to make sure it was not a mistake.

    That would be unthinkable in today’s game. If a pitcher were used in such a manner now, much spittle-flecked outrage would ensue, prolly with reason.

  34. great gonzalez on September 12th, 2008 5:51 pm

    Koufax was a fantastic pitcher. He posted incredible numbers — but you have to remember they were posted in a time when offense was at historic lows

    Yeah, that’s key, thank you.

  35. Ralph_Malph on September 12th, 2008 6:01 pm

    Dave, thanks for running these numbers. This does put Felix in perspective — a very, very good perspective.

  36. Breadbaker on September 12th, 2008 6:01 pm

    The thing that has to be remembered about Grove is that the International League Baltimore Orioles, probably the greatest minor league team of all time and a team that could have beaten a lot of the major league teams of its time (oh, for relegation!) kept Grove from starting his major league career until he was 25. He still won 300 games (and completed 2/3rds of his career starts, so “wins” was a fairly accurate measure of his value to his team), has 9 ERA crowns and matches it with nine Adjusted ERA+ crowns. I’m not a great believer that you can ever decide who the “best” of something is, but I don’t think it’s easy to deny that Grove would be in the conversation.

  37. Steve T on September 12th, 2008 6:12 pm

    Remember that Grove absolutely blew away hitters for years in the “minors” before he went to the majors. Really the International League was an independent league in the 20s, comparable to a major league in many ways, and players didn’t always see any reason to go the majors, when it could result in a cut in pay. The IL Baltimore Orioles were nobody’s farm team.

    He didn’t slow down when he reached the AL, either. He won NINE ERA titles, in the middle of a monster power explosion (and in bandbox ballparks). Wins and ERA might be poor measures in general but their flaws even out over 4,000 innings, and Grove has the best winning percentage of all time (.680) by a wide margin over anyone with as many decisions. ERA+? Try TWO-NINETEEN in his MVP year, 1931: 2.06 in a hitter’s park in a 4.51 league.

    Add those four or five Orioles years to his totals and you’ve got some monstrous numbers.

    Prove me wrong if you want, but Grove will always be my #1 starter — depending on whether Pete Alexander is drunk or not.

  38. Steve T on September 12th, 2008 6:15 pm

    Beat me to it, Breadbaker!

  39. JerBear on September 12th, 2008 6:16 pm

    Thanks for the nice write up, Dave. I do hope that the powers that be in Seattle realize just how amazing and special he is. We’ve all put up with alot over the years as Mariners fans, but if they ever let Felix slip away, I’m not sure I could recover…

  40. Joe on September 12th, 2008 6:39 pm

    Koufax is still a funky badass Jew, though.

    Damn straight. Hank Greenberg too.

    The real question in my mind is will he be signable by this train wreck? Can we keep him?

    If they pony up the cash, they can keep him. There won’t be a hometown discount, but the M’s should only have to match / slightly beat the next best offer. Whether that’s actually the best use of their money is a question for another time (particularly since we have no idea what the team situation will be then). But the more pressing issue is what they do when it comes time for arbitration. This team has been known to nickel-and-dime that process and piss people off; the smart teams have been locking up their kids by buying out the arbitration years and a couple free agent years as well. The calculus is a little different because Felix is so young, but that still should be an important order of business for the next GM.

  41. DMZ on September 12th, 2008 6:52 pm

    I think I say this every time the subject comes up, but it turns out nickel-and-diming players is the way to go: teams that have looked at this found paying players more than you have to when they’re under team control doesn’t get you any significant benefit when you try to sign them to long-term contracts. Players treated generously are just as ruthless as a group in going after money as the players who were treated ruthlessly.

    Which is what you’d expect, really — we don’t think that any player facing free agency would turn down a substantially more lucrative offer because they made $100k more than the team was forced to years back.

    I agree with the basic premise, though, which is that you do want to try and lock players up long-term when they’re in their arbitration years or before — when the offer of long-term security carries a substantial value. By the time you’re in the player’s free agent year, you’re going to pay market rates for any extension.

  42. Wishhiker on September 12th, 2008 6:55 pm

    OK…I understand that it’s a different debate entirely at this point (Best M’s SP=Randy=Best LH SP All-Time=Debate) but Randy Johnson: Debuted at age 25(5 days after his 25th B-Day) and Lefty Grove:Debuted at 25. Koufax debuted at 19 but was a reliever up until age 22. None of these guys figured out the league at a level that Felix is at until…RJ age 27 (when the season was in the books and wasn’t clearly better until he was 30), LG at 26 (in 26), and Koufax didn’t reach Felix’s level until he shot right past it at age 26. FH is still 22. The way I figure it, he’s ahead of the curve if he starts dominating within the next 3 years.

  43. msb on September 12th, 2008 10:02 pm

    That would be unthinkable in today’s game. If a pitcher were used in such a manner now, much spittle-flecked outrage would ensue, prolly with reason.

    I heard Fairly once talking about how many pitchers teams signed in his day, because they knew they’d blow out a bunch of them, and would need another arm to stick out there on the mound …

  44. Teej on September 13th, 2008 12:08 am

    I think there are two types of Felix-related worries here:

    1. “He’ll never be awesome, because if he were going to be, he would have shown it by now.”

    I don’t believe this at all (even if the kid does make me pull my hair out on occasion).

    2. “Felix is already halfway through his six years of team control, and I fear that he’ll reach his true potential with another team.”

    This is my concern. I don’t trust this team to do the right thing and buy out a few years of free agency.

    Felix is 22. That’s enough for me to fully believe in him. But I just can’t stand the thought of seeing him win his Cy Youngs with another jersey on.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.