Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is something not quite right with King Felix?

This post is supposed to show my skills in pitcher evaluation. I looked at Felix Hernandez' performance Saturday, August 13 against the Boston Red Sox.

What does it take to evaluate a pitcher? Don’t rely on Mariner broadcasters to give you too much insight into pitcher evaluation.

Recent statistical development shows a compelling ratio anytime Felix Hernandez takes the mound: +K/NQ measures pitcher strikeouts versus the amount a broadcaster speaks the phrase "no question." Felix inspires more "no question" statements per strikeout than the average American League pitcher.

Rizzs: “Swiiiiing and a miss! Strike three! When Felix has that slider working like that, Red, he’s the best pitcher in the American League.”
Fairly: “No question.”

Felix puts out +K/NQ ratios in each start that average about 3:8, often affected by whether Ron Fairly is calling the game. In a May 6th complete game win against the White Sox, Felix struck out 6, and Fairly dished out 16 “no question” response commentaries. Felix may be a league leader, but +K/NQ ratios are often skewed higher with Red Sox and Yankees pitchers.

Regardless of the +K/NQ statistical analysis in Felix' 2011 season, something that is in question is whether anything is "wrong" with Felix in 2011. Some measurements indicate not much has changed between this season and the last two. I like to look at seasonal trends on Fangraphs. Felix’ BABIP this season is a little higher but not outside of career ranges, so it doesn’t appear to be a bad luck/good luck issue. FIP, BB and K rates are all within range of previous years. But there's something not passing the eye test with Felix. We expect Felix not to not merely pitch well, but to dominate the opposition. The Cy Young in 2010 elevated expectations even higher, and there is also an underlying expectation that Felix can become even better. The establishment of the baseball bacchanalia that is The King’s Court capitalizes on that belief. Even though Felix has put up some great performances in 2011 (the recent 12 K performance in Anaheim), Saturday’s start against the Red Sox showed that something is just enough out of kilter to watch in the future. Granted, the Red Sox put out a formidable line-up, working counts and driving the ball all over the park. The Sawx send many pitchers away whimpering.

The Red Sox bats gave us an idea of where the trends may be going with Felix. In the 6th inning, the Sox hit the ball all over the park. With one screaming line drive of several that inning, Dustin Pedroia smoked a ball over the right center fence, a drive that I couldn't imagine on Felix in the last two seasons. The Line Drive % for Felix is the highest of his career, and his Ground Ball % is the lowest, according to Fangraphs. It's not as if Felix is getting shelled, but those rates bear watching. Felix was definitely watching in disbelief as well, as he stood with mouth agape after Pedroia’s shot.

A hypothetical Mariners roster move

This article is fictional, but after watching the Tacoma Rainiers play last Friday night. I realized that Matt Tuiasosopo's time in the Mariner organization may be short. This is a hypothetical roster move based on a fictitious release of Matt Tuiasosopo.

Friday night, the obvious scapegoat in the Rainier's pounding at the hands of the Iowa Cubs was Luke French. To say French hit his 2011 form of mid-80's velocity that night is generous. Even the Cubs' left-handed hitters sat on his fastball like he was delivering it on a platter, despite an arm slot that indicates he should get lefties out with some efficiency. French’s start made a statement that if he wants to have a future in MLB, he may have to explore becoming a LOOGY if he thinks he can pull off a little self-reinvention.

French won’t likely have a LOOGY future with the Mariners, as he was promptly DFA’d after the start. Jack Z. seems to be learning some lessons about hanging on to players too long, and followed up the move of cutting bait on French with a DFA for Matt Tuiasosopo. Though Tui’s future with the Mariner organization has looked bleak for some time (especially since the 2010 season), this DFA bears a thoughtful mention if only for the reason that the Tuiasosopo family is a bit of a Seattle area institution, and many Seattle fans have rooted for Tui to do well. I wanted Tui to do well in a Mariner uniform, and I will smile if he can continue to craft his game and become a good contributor to another organization.

Some players with their poor play draw fan ire, but to watch Tui Friday night was sad. Never has Tui been more clearly a player without a position in the Mariner organization than Friday night. Watching Tui play second made me appreciate Dustin Ackley, Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson, Jose Lopez, Harold Reynolds, Jack Perconte, Julio Cruz and Larry Milbourne and the cast of other second basemen in Mariner history more. Every second baseman the Mariners have ever had, regardless of their defensive ability, seemed to know where to play. With their knowledge of positioning they could make an appropriate catch and throw, and get an out. These players all have/had their flaws and none of them (maybe Ackley?) had/will have a HOF career, but they knew a few things about their position. Playing out of position on a few plays and making a key throwing error (profoundly ugly) behind French, Tui hung his head carrying the entire weight of his Mariner experience on his shoulders. I wanted to take him out of the game myself, buy him a Deschutes IPA from the concession stand, and offer some consolation.

Okay, Tui is not an infielder, but where do you put him when you have an outfield/DH fleet in Tacoma that includes a PCL-punishing outfield like Peguero, Halman, Pena (since called up), Wilson and Saunders? Maybe you give Tui a chance at third, but you can’t legitimately take playing time away from Liddi at this point. Place him at short and the front office may be convicted for cruel and unusual punishment. Though his hitting line isn’t abysmal (.341/.394/.735), it doesn’t stack up in the PCL or make him look like a good option at first base. This DFA makes sense, as it clears the way on the 40-man roster for promotions in the organization.

Tui was the Mariners’ first pick in the 2004 draft (3rd round) and fit something of a trend of choosing well-rounded athletes/stud football players (see Wilson, Mike). Tui could have followed in the footsteps of his brother, Marques and star at the U Dub in football, but he chose his own path in the more body/health friendly athletic field of baseball. The pick also says something about the trajectory of the organization after the departure of Pat Gillick—their draft hit a serious downward trend after Tui (see Clement, Jeff in 2005). Tui’s DFA says something about the trajectory of the Mariner organization today.

Though it might be a great story in the Seattle Times to see Tui continue in the organization and be one of those feel-good stories about local guy/mostly career minor leaguer who hits a fun, yet unsustainable hot streak in his early 30s with the Mariners, this ship has sailed.

Tui, thanks for the exciting possibility of a local guy making it with the Mariners. If you want that beer, let me know. Maybe Willie Bloomquist can join us.