Thursday, April 12, 2007

When We Were Kings

I tuned in last night, along the rest of the baseball world, to watch the first national TV appearance of Matsuzaka. The game had the added storyline of the Mariners and Ichiro being in town. I'm sure the crush of Japanese press was practically unbearable. A funny thing happened on the way the Matsuzaka's all but assumed second major league victory. He got upstaged by a just turned 21 year old pitcher by the name of Felix Hernandez with the apt nickname of "King Felix". Last night he demonstrated that he didn't get his nickname because of his resemblance to some long dead monarch.

If you've never seen Felix pitch, you should do yourself a favor and check him out next time the Mariners are on ESPN. His arsenal includes a 95-100 MPH 4-seam fastball, a 92-95 MPH 2-seam fastball, a vicious 12 to 6 curveball and an unheard of (at least by me), 92 MPH slider. He held the Red Sox hitless through seven innings last night and surrendered just one hit over the entire game. It was a masterful performance. For the season to date, he has started two games allowed no runs, 4 hits and has struck out 18 over 17 innings.

If his first two starts are any indication of what's to come, he is well on his way to living up to the hype that preceeded him as he entered the league two season ago as a precocious 19 year old. He was a late season call up in 2005 and dazzled the hitters with his power pitching. He had more trouble last year as he tried to over power every hitter that he faced. It appears that he learned his lesson. Major leaguers will eventually hit you regardless of how hard you throw unless you vary your pitches. Pedro was dominant, not because of his fastball, but because he was equally adept at throwing the change up. Randy Johnson has struck out over 4,000 because of his slider and Roger Clemens continues to rack up the strikeouts because of his splitter.

It would be unfair to expect Felix to repeat his performance of last night in every start, but it would be exciting to watch. Not since the 19 year old Doc Gooden exploded onto the baseball stage has someone so young, been so good. The Mets put a lot of innings on Gooden's arm in those first two seasons and by season three, he had begun to break down. He never again reached the heights of those first two magical summers. The Mariners have been very careful not to overwork their most prized possession. They have limited the number of innings he has thrown in order to minimize the potential for arm trouble. It remains to be seen whether his arm will stand up under the strain of thousands of 90+ MPH pitches. Hopefully he has one of those once in a lifetime arms like Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens. I am looking forward to seeing what Felix does this year and I do wish him the best (except when he pitches against the Yankees of course).

In my preseason picks, I tabbed Rich Harden as this year's Cy Young award winner. I'm not going to back off of that prediction, but in that article, I proclaimed that Harden had the best stuff in the AL. After having watched King Felix last night, I have to admit that I was wrong. While Santana may be a better pitcher (and the possessor of baseball's best change up), and Harden may be able to throw just as hard, no one in baseball has the arsenal that Hernandez possesses. His arm may fall off tomorrow or some other unforeseen event may derail him, but for right now, his potential is limitless.

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