Almost all stats look funny at the start of a long season. Small samples are inherently wacky, as there’s just so much variance and weirdness, which leaves us with things like Emilio Bonifacio and his .435 batting average, or the Arizona Diamondbacks and their 6.89 rotation ERA. Early in the season there hasn’t been time for things to normalize, so we get a nice look at the extremes of player performance. Some guys underperform and have stat lines that seem like something you or I would put up in the majors. Some guys perform near the top of their abilities and tempt us to imagine such a performance sustained over a full season. And some guys are Felix Hernandez.
It was about this time last year that the world started to notice that Felix Hernandez looked diferent from years of old. There were still tons of strikeouts, sure, but where there used to be walks there were now…more strikeouts? We cautioned that these gains were probably unsustainable while noting that Felix was one of the very best pitchers alive, and that he still had youth on his side. He went on, of course, to sustain those gains, finishing with what were by far career-best strikeout and walk numbers. Now it’s a year later. He’s still one of the best, he’s still young, and look, his strikeout and walk numbers are again much improved. Small sample theater? Unsustainable stretch of peak performance? Or just The King turning another corner and somehow finding a way to get even better? Only time will tell, but wow, has he been some kind of amazing so far or what.
In seven-plus innings last night, Hernandez allowed four hits, including two earned runs that scored after he was pulled. He walked nobody and struck out eleven, blazing through the Oakland lineup. Of the A’s starting nine, only Jed Lowrie made it through the day without a single K. Felix has comical numbers right now: 21.1 innings, 2.11 ERA, 2.18 FIP, 2.14 xFIP (talk about consistency – no luck at all in these numbers, just great pitching), 12.66 K/9, and 0.84 BB/9. You know who’s got a better strikeout-to-walk ratio? Masahiro Tanaka. You know who else has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio? Nobody. A year ago we wondered if Felix could sustain his crazy start. He did, so now what are we going to do, temper our expectations? Absolutely not. Felix could keep this up. If he does, then it could go down as one of the best pitcher seasons ever. And it’s no secret that the talent’s there.
This game was played in front of a very crowded Safeco Field, with tens of thousands of yellow-shirted spectators frantically cheering on one of the young season’s top pitching performances to date. Oakland starter Tommy Milone got his season off to a weird start, opting to go the Fernando Rodney route of looking alternatingly dominant and reckless. Milone refused to issue a walk, but allowed ten hits to go with his seven strikeouts. The game’s first three pitches were all laced for base hits, as Abraham Almonte doubled, Brad Miller singled, and Robinson Cano singled to score a run.
Kyle Seager just missed a home run to lead off the fourth, rounding the bases and celebrating before replay showed it to be foul. He went back to the plate and wasted no time striking out. Heartbreaking, given his season-opening slump. The M’s, however, did make the most of the frame, as Dustin Ackley doubled before a single by Mike Zunino sent him home. Zunino advanced on a throwing error, then scored when Lowrie couldn’t do anything right while trying to field a ball hit by Almonte. Ackley led off the sixth with a single and was homered in by Zunino, with Brad Miller chipping in a solo shot a couple batters later.
From there, things got scary. Felix led off the eighth by smashing Daric Barton‘s toe with a hard curve, then allowed a slap single to Eric Sogard Wears Glasses. Lucas Luetge entered, threw four balls to Sam Fuld, and was pulled for Danny Farquhar. Farquhar walked in a run before striking out Josh Donaldson, prompting Lloyd McClendon to make the questionable decision to pull Farquhar in order to get Charlie Furbush in against Brandon Moss. Platoon advantage, sure, but Farquhar is one of the best relievers in the game, bases loaded walk and all. Furbush let up a single by Moss, then Yoenis Cespedes hit an RBI groundout. A wild pitch brought in a fourth run, and all of a sudden the game looked shaky. Furbush got Alberto Callaspo to pop out and end the frame, but why is his leash so much longer than Farquhar’s? Does one walk really have that much predictive power for the rest of the inning?
Remember how the A’s are paying their closer ten million dollars? And how he has two blown saves to open the season? That closer, Jim Johnson, pitched the seventh and eighth last night. He struck out four and didn’t allow any baserunners, let alone balls hit in the air. Giving the struggling high profile arm some low-leverage time is a creative piece of problem-solving by the A’s, and if Johnson comes back strong it will be easy to point to his two inning, non-save situation appearance as something that let him throw without worrying about another big loss. Fernando Rodney pitched the ninth in a save situation for the Mariners and worked around a leadoff double by John Jaso to strike out two and close things out. Felix Day wasn’t without it’s share of drama, but the Mariners won, and that’s what matters.
So here we are, back to being fans of a first-place team after the team entered last night a half-game back of Oakland. The Seattle Mariners have the best run differential in the American League. They have the best record in the American League. Their ace is on pace to blow his best season out of the water for the second year in a row. It’s M’s and A’s again tonight at Safeco, with Erasmo Ramirez and Sonny Gray pitching. The game starts at 7:10, and first place is on the line. Sure, you say, it’s early. But first place is first place, and the longer the Mariners hang onto it, the more likely it is that that’s where they find themselves in September. Which is a crazy thought, but so is Felix’s fifteen strikeouts for every walk, and that’s really happening. If that can happen, can’t the playoffs? Can’t anything?