Learning to Pitch
morning afternoon day, the Mariners won a game, after Felix Hernandez shut down the Pirates despite not really seeming to have his best stuff. Granted, the Pirates’ offense isn’t nearly as intimidating as actual pirates, or at least as actual pirates would’ve been a few hundred years ago, but so far they’ve been middle of the pack, and it’s not like Felix turned in this start in isolation. This was the fifth start in a row that Felix allowed one or zero earned runs, and his ERA is now exactly half his ERA from last season. His ERA last season was good! ERA is being used because this post is unscientific in nature.
There’s an old expression that gets slapped onto young guys who throw hard: they need to learn how to pitch, not throw. It’s so vague as to be completely unhelpful, and I generally can’t stand it when it’s used on phenoms and prospects, but at its core is the right message. There is an art to pitching, and it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than throwing the ball 97 miles per hour somewhere and trying to get a swing and miss. You need to have multiple pitches, you need to know how to command them, and you need to know how to mix them up in mostly unpredictable patterns. Some people are just naturally gifted at throwing, but that’ll only get them noticed, and it’s challenging to get to the bigs and stick in the bigs. The biggest idiot big-league veteran still understands better than most how to do his job.
I was asked in my latest FanGraphs chat about, I don’t know, someone, some young pitcher who throws really hard and has a famous fastball. The name escapes me and the name doesn’t matter. That pitcher, whoever he is, might have some initial success just on account of his raw stuff, but when the league adjusts he’ll have to adjust back. When he loses velocity as he gets older, he’ll have to make up for it. A gifted young pitcher still needs to develop, and we can all think of examples of pitchers who didn’t.
In the course of writing this I’ve been interrupted by several text messages, so I already hate the way this post flows, but I’m thinking about that old expression and the King, on the heels of his latest greatness. Felix, as a rookie, had immediate, outstanding success, the sort of success that led us all to believe he couldn’t possibly struggle. Seriously, that’s what I recall as we headed into 2006 — I recall thinking “Felix doesn’t have any downside.” Subsequent years would reveal that Felix still had a lot of work to do, but as his fastball deteriorated, his numbers bounced back. Felix, now, looks only a little like the guy he was in 2005. Felix, now, looks almost identical to the guy he was in 2005. There are throwers, and there are pitchers. Felix has been amazing as both of them.
This is all to set up just a few factoids. The following, courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions, won’t take you by surprise:
2005: 96mph average fastball
2013: 91mph average fastball
Every so often Felix used to rush it up there in or near the triple digits. Somewhat alarmingly, now I feel good when I see him hit 93. I say “somewhat alarmingly,” because while velocity loss is cause for alarm, it’s hard to panic when the results look like Felix’s results. He’s clearly not broken, and now for another comparison, updated to include today’s eight-inning gem:
2005: 2.67 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 2.77 xFIP
2013: 1.53 ERA, 2.16 FIP, 2.66 xFIP
Felix is all the way back to his incredible rookie results with a fraction — albeit a big fraction — of the stuff. More generally, this year stands as continuing evidence that Felix has evolved as he’s needed to as the years have gone on. No longer capable of doing what he did, Felix is doing what he did, in another way. In a more polished, intelligent way.
With less of a fastball, Felix worked on his patterns. With less of a fastball, Felix worked on his location. With less of a fastball, Felix mastered the changeup, then he mastered that mastered changeup. We aren’t to the point yet where we can say that Felix is thriving as a finesse pitcher, but what’s crazy is that such an idea isn’t wild or unrealistic. Ten years from now, that could be Felix. He’s lost five ticks off his heater — what would be five more? He’s slowed down without slowing down.
Felix is perfect. Felix has worked out perfectly. While Felix still allows hits and runs, what needs to be appreciated is that this is what it looks like when a prospect reaches his ceiling. Prospects are always being evaluated on their ceilings by idiots, and those people are idiots because prospects don’t actually reach their ceilings. Ceilings are virtually unreachable, but here’s Felix, who got there and who then figured it out. His stuff was unbelievable, and it all still moves like pitches shouldn’t. Felix has demonstrated maturity and dedication, and there’s no questioning his loyalty, and while I remember Felix getting blasted by Will Carroll for having violent mechanics, Felix to this point has stayed almost perfectly healthy. When Felix got to the majors, he was great. When he struggled in the majors, he actually made all the adjustments that he needed to make. It took him a few years, but Felix was 23 when he was the Cy Young runner-up. He was 24 when he actually won it. At just about every fork in the road, Felix has followed the right path. There’s no question he’s unusually blessed, but Felix put his work in. He actually learned to pitch, when he found out what’s what he needed to do.
I hate this post. I don’t think it conveys the idea I want it to, and I think it’s pretty poorly written. Thankfully, people seldom notice bad baseball writing, given the pool of people selected to write about baseball. Here’s a takeaway point: Felix is a pitcher, and because of that, we’re constantly worried. He’s the best pitcher on this team. He’s the best player on this team. He is this team, even though this team isn’t very good. We’re constantly worried about his health and about his ability to keep being dominant while his fastball slows down further and further. All of our worries — they’ve pretty much all been in our own heads. Felix hasn’t actually given us a reason to worry. Felix has been amazing, and he still is, despite it all. These days he’s been pitching as well as he ever has.
Roy Halladay needs shoulder surgery, and it’s an operation that involves his labrum, so there’s no telling how he’s going to come back. It’s a devastating blow to the Phillies, who previously saw Halladay as automatic. It’s something we’re all going to keep in mind, because pitchers are healthy until they aren’t. But the only worry about Felix is worry because he’s a pitcher. There’s not a single reason to worry about Felix otherwise. There’s nothing that’s Felix-specific. Felix is an ace, and he’s ours, and he’s perfect.