Monday, June 05, 2006

Royal Disappointment?
By Ben Valentine

Originally, I planned on doing just a general overview of some of baseball’s slow starters pitching wise, but out of respect to our prehistoric blogmaster, I’m going to devote an entire post to the phenom that goes by the name of King Felix.

Coming into this season, many tabbed Hernandez as one of the better pitchers in baseball; some even going as far as to deem him in the top 10! Suffice to say, it appears he has not come close to being that this season. Instead he’s caused consternation to Zach and Mariners fans everywhere. Going into the week of June 4th, Hernandez has a 5.78 ERA, which is 89th in the majors to go along with a putrid 1.58 WHIP. Considering Hernandez resides at pitcher friendly SAFECO Field, you can definitely say he’s looked more “Royals” than royal in 2006.

What has been the problem this year for the King? He’s been a lot more “hittable” while also falling severe victim to the gopher ball. So far opponents are batting .289 off Hernandez while slugging .462 off him. A large part of that slugging percentage is the nasty 11 homers in 62.1 innings he’s surrendered, which translates to 1.5 per nine. With an .817 OPS against, it is little surprise that Hernandez has the WHIP and ERA he does.

Or is it?

A closer look at Hernandez’s peripherals suggests something doesn’t make sense here. Last season, when the King posted a 2.67 ERA and a WHIP of 1.00 in 84.1 innings with the Mariners, he managed to have a GB/FB ratio of 3.31, making him one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers this side of Brandon Webb. It was no surprise therefore that his home run rate last season was just .53 per nine while his OPP BA was .203. (6.51 H/9) And unlike someone like Chein Ming Wang or Mark Mulder, he had a K/9 of 8.22 and a K/BB of 3.35, both exceptional. Without question, Hernandez was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the final two months of the 05’ season.

This year, the GB/FB ratio is down a great deal, but is still extremely good at 2.10. In fact, that puts him at 13th in all of baseball. How is a pitcher who is getting more ground ball outs than all but 12 other pitchers in the entire majors surrendering homers at the rate of 1.5 per game? It has to be that his stuff has declined right?

Wrong.

The King this year is striking out more batters per nine than he did last year; he’s up to 9.10 per nine innings in 06’ from the 8.22 he posted in 05’. So the King is missing bats with a greater frequency than he did last year. He’s been a bit more wild; walking 3.32 per nine which falls in line with his minor league numbers. (3.59 for his minor league career) However, this still translates to a 2.74 K/BB ratio, which is still more than acceptable for a guy who strikes out as many and induces the number of ground ball outs that Hernandez does.

Consider that of the 12 ground ball pitchers ahead of Hernandez, none have a higher K/9 and only three, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, have a better K/BB ratio. Thus it should be enough to compensate for the lower GB/FB rate. Yet despite that, the King has a higher Opp BA than all but two on that list and has surrendered more homers than everyone on the list except Mark Mulder (who’s served up 13 gophers).

Or let’s look at it from another angle. Hernandez is tied for 21st worst in baseball in home runs allowed (not home run rate). Of the pitchers who have served up as many or more gopher balls this year, none have similar peripherals to the king. The closest is Dave Bush, who’s K rate is 7.43 and has a 3.50 K/BB. But his GB/FB rate is just 1.21, compared to the King’s 2.10. Only Joel Pineiro, Andy Pettitte, and the aforementioned Mulder have GB/FB ratios over 1.50 and none of those three have a K/9 and K/BB rate as good as the King. Mulder is the only one of those three who induces more ground outs.

But maybe he’s just prone to the home run? Some pitchers just are. Well if the King is, he hasn’t shown it up until this point. His highest Hr/9 rate up until this year (outside of 2 starts he made at Mid A ball) was the .53 he posted with the Mariners last year. His career minor league Hr rate was just .41. His career minor league hit rate was 7.23/9. This season it’s 10.54/9! Since his peripherals just don’t suggest that type of fall off, something doesn’t fly here.

In other words, the hit and homer rates for the King don’t fall in line with how he’s pitching, especially when you consider how he’s pitched before this season. A guy who misses that many bats and who induces as many ground ball outs as he does should not be getting hit at this rate, and certainly not hit nearly as hard as Hernandez as been this year. It seems to be a bit of an anomaly when you compare him to years past. And while one always in concerned when the prized prospect of an organization struggles, Hernandez seems to be more the victim of rotten luck than anything else.

So if you asked me what pitcher who’s started off slowly is most likely to have a huge second half, I’d say it would be the King. Take heart Mariners fans (or those that are worried), the future of your organization will be just fine.

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