The fourth pitch Felix Hernandez threw yesterday wasn’t very good at all.
I certainly couldn’t have hit it — it was a 92 mile an hour fastball, with at least a little bit of movement — but big league hitters could. Rays leadoff hitter and Wikipedia superstar Sam Fuld could, turning on the ball and hitting it with a force and trajectory that, in most cases, one assumes will result in a hit. You can gaze upon it with your own two eyes here:
Judging by their respective reactions on contact, I’d guess that Fuld thought he had at least a double, and Felix thought he might have more.
This is Safeco Field, though, and there’s room back there. The man in charge of all that room on this day was Eric Thames (“Thaymes,” pronounced the opposite way from Marcus and the river for maximum confusion), who in his 153-game career had managed to cost his team a large number of runs relative to an average outfielder: -17 by Defensive Runs Saved, -12.5 by UZR (he’s actually just a touch above average by Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA…but he sure doesn’t look average).
At the moment the ball hits the bat, the baseball fan’s mind cycles through at least four possibilities. The line drive dives and falls in front of the right fielder for a single; it makes the gap for a double or triple; it sails over everything for a home run. What actually happens — Thames does his version of sprinting back at a good angle, reaching up at the last moment and making kind of a staggering, lunging catch two steps or so from the wall — is certainly one of those possibilities, but certainly doesn’t seem like the most likely one off the bat, especially if you remember that it’s Thames standing back there.
All the same, it wasn’t that great a catch (you have to figure an Ichiro, or a Jason Heyward or Ben Revere, is camping under a ball like that), and it being the first batter of the game and all, it’s hard to make anything of it. Dave Sims scarcely changed the tone of his voice as he called it (“Well stroked. Right field. Going back…Thames. With room [slight stress on ‘room’]…aand he tracks it down.”), and that was roughly the level of excitement and attention it deserved.
What makes it at all noteworthy, of course, is what Felix did after that. He might have missed his spot two or three more times, but he was so good and so unpredictable the rest of the time that the Rays had no idea what to do with it when he did. After so many possibilities on Fuld’s first swing, Felix went ahead and removed all doubt and uncertainty the rest of the way. In the fourth inning, Prospectus collegue and Rays fan Jason Collette’s Facebook status update said “Felix Hernandez is going to throw a perfect game today,” and I’m sure people say things like that and are wrong all the time, but watching what Felix does in this game, and where he puts his pitches, and how he seems to pick up a mile or two on his fastball with each passing inning, you can see where that feeling comes from. The Rays just never got close, never made remotely good contact after the very first ball they put in play. He really did throw harder as it went along, and his strikeouts by inning went like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 0, 3, 0, 3, 2. You got a few chances to bleed or bloop one in over those first few innings, but then enough was enough.
Perfect games take a lot of luck and a lot of help from the defense, of course, and I’m of the mind that almost no one alive today has ever seen a pure single-game pitching demonstration as great as Kerry Wood’s fifth career start. But if a pitcher really can be perfect by himself, Felix was just about as close as you’ll see to one getting there without simply striking out everybody. It’s a game everybody should go back and watch (even if you don’t have MLB.tv, I think they sell individual past games for like $2.99), and that’s probably worth watching more than once.
It will almost definitely go down as the greatest game in the career of one of the greatest pitchers of the current era, which has me thinking: we take Felix for granted, and part of it is because he pitches in Seattle, part is because he’s never racked up a ton of wins (because he pitches in Seattle, among other things), and part is because he’s justag been around and known around the sport for so long — he started 30 games for the first time in 2006, in a league in which Vernon Wells, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner were superstars and Ruben Sierra and Sandy Alomar were still active. But he was 20 at the time, so it makes it harder to remember that he’s still only 26 now, still should be in the middle of (or even still just moving into) his peak. He’s been a full-time starter, and a good-to-great one, in every year since, and it’s become pretty easy to just accept that as part of the normal fabric of baseball–to take no notice, in the big picture, of what he’s been doing.
So that’s part of why we’ve been taking Felix for granted. The other part, though, is that it’s hard to say exactly what he’s doing. It certainly feels special, because we haven’t seen it in recent memory — a guy good enough to be an effective starter at age 20, who stays healthy and keeps getting better into, at least, his late 20s. But pitching has changed so much over the years, and even very recently, that it’s essentially impossible to compare that to what’s come before. When A-Rod was a young phenom, it was easy to look it up and say he’s the first to hit X home runs by his Yth birthday, has more runs or RBI or whatever than Hank Aaron did by Z age, and so on. No such comparisons are possible with Felix. A full season for him is 32 games and 200-240 innings; for Aaron’s contemporaries (the aces, anyway), it was more like 40 and 300. Wins, if you care about them, are a lot harder to come by, too, with more developed bullpens entering games earlier. Even WAR is essentially a cumulative stat — it compares the pitcher against his peers, but it’s going to tend to go up with additional not-terrible innings pitched, so the guys who were throwing 300+ have a big advantage over him there, too.
Even starting in 1950 — more or less arbitrarily, but to remove the silliness of the Deadball Era and deal only with post-integration pitchers — on the lists of pitchers through their age 26 season, Felix is sixth in strikeouts, 17th in wins, 14th in innings, ninth in games started, tied for 112th in shutouts and off the top 200 in complete games. He’ll move up a bit in most of those categories by the end of the year, but not a ton. He’s tenth in WAR. None of that sounds very impressive at all, does it? Good, certainly, but not terribly special. You might point out that only one pitcher since 1950 (Bert Blyleven) has a better ERA+ than Felix’s through age 26 in as many innings or more (list), but that feels like a bit of a stretch.
I have a feeling it is special, though, very much so. Because Hernandez isn’t doing anything different than what Brett Saberhagen or Dave Steib or Frank Tanana or Don Drysdale did, except that he’s doing it right now, in the age of 100 pitches and 200 innings and extra days of rest and surgeons who cut first and ask questions later (not that I think any of those things are bad developments, mind you). We don’t have any way of illustrating the specialness of that right now, against the much bigger numbers of the past, but I’m confident that we will eventually.
At any rate, Hernandez is one of the very best we’ve got going now, and given that he won’t turn 27 for six months, seems a good bet (knock on wood) to eventually be looked back upon as one of the very best ever. He’s been dependably spectacular for long enough now (and in a remote-enough corner of the baseball world) that we’ve just kind of gotten used to him, which makes it especially great that for one two-hour, twenty-minute stretch of one afternoon, he went and became oh-my-god-everyone-must-immediately-see-this spectacular instead.