The Next Big Thing

There’s something special about pitching prospects.

I’ve ranked Joe Mauer as the #1 overall prospect in baseball heading into each of the last two seasons and I think he has a chance to be one of the greatest catchers in the history of baseball, but outside of Minnesota, his first few big-league games didn’t make many TiVo lists. His career just sort of started, and while people were excited it was more like the opening of a big movie — everyone knew they wanted to see it, but they could wait a few days until the crowds got smaller.

Meanwhile, Mark Prior was drafted one spot after Mauer in 2001 and the hype and excitement surrounding his big-league debut was incredible. It was more like the opening of Star Wars, where people camped out for weeks outside the theater to get the first glimpse before everyone else. It’s not that Prior was a better prospect than Mauer (although arguably he was), but rather that he was a different type of prospect.

I bring this up because I watched Felix Hernandez‘s second major-league start Tuesday night. I was disapppointed to miss his debut, which came while I was at the SABR convention in Toronto, so it was a nice coincidence that his second outing came against my beloved Twins. I tuned in, excited to see the pitcher I ranked the second-best prospect in baseball heading into this season, and came away from the game in awe, convinced I had just seen The Next Big Thing.

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
8.0     5     0      0      0      6      0      94

Now, Minnesota’s offense is admittedly pretty punchless and the lineup Hernandez shut out for eight innings featured no fewer than four hitters who could just as easily been playing at Triple-A. Still, it was an extremely dominant performance, as Hernandez dueled Kyle Lohse for six scoreless innings, finally got a run to work with in the bottom of the seventh, and handed over a 1-0 lead to Eddie Guardado in the ninth. Guardado pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning against his former team and Hernandez picked up his first major-league win after going 30-10 with a 2.59 ERA in 306.1 minor-league innings.

The 19-year-old phenom Mariners fans call “King Felix” has the total package on the mound. He works with a mid-90s fastball that simply overpowered Minnesota hitters at times, features an incredible breaking ball that the boys over at USS Mariner have taken to calling “The Royal Curveball,” and last but not least has a changeup that is absolutely amazing as a third pitch.

His advanced repetoire of pitches is evident when you look at his pitch-by-pitch breakdown against the Twins, which is exactly what Seth Stohs did at his blog. In needing just 94 pitches to record 24 outs against Minnesota, Hernandez threw 59 fastballs (62.8%), 23 breaking balls (24.5%), and 12 changeups (12.7%). Stohs found that Hernandez averaged 96.3 miles per hour on his fastballs and essentially maintained his fastball velocity throughout the game, averaging over 95 miles per hour with his heater in the seventh and eighth innings.

Most 19-year-olds with 96 mph fastballs would keep pumping it at hitters all game, but that’s not what Hernandez did. Instead, he focused on establishing his fastball during the first two times through the Twins’ order, throwing it 73.1% of the time through the fifth inning, and then changed gears in the sixth inning. He finished the game by throwing just 10 fastballs in his last 27 pitches, compared to six breaking balls. And after throwing just one changeup through the first five innings, Hernandez tossed 11 changeups in his final 27 pitches.

In addition to an advanced approach to pitching, Hernandez throws what could probably be described as a “heavy” ball and isn’t afraid to repeatedly jam hitters inside, so when he’s not racking up strikeouts he’s inducing ground balls in bunches. He also breaks a ton of bats and gets quite a few weak pop ups to the infield, which reminded me of Mariano Rivera at times. Oh, and did I mention he doesn’t turn 20 years old for another eight months?

Of course, as has been said many times about many phenoms, nothing is guaranteed with even the best pitching prospects. Many people have taken to proclaiming that “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect” and all you need to do is look at the injury problems Prior has had since his highly anticipated debut to see that a can’t-miss pitcher on the path to a Hall of Fame career can come up against all kinds of detours along the way.

The last 19-year-old pitcher who was as good as Hernandez was likely Dwight Gooden, and we all know how that story ended. Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA as a 19-year-old rookie in 1984 to win the NL Rookie of the Year award and then went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA as a 20-year-old to win the 1985 NL Cy Young award while leading the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and innings pitched.

By the time he turned 24 years old Gooden had won 91 games, finished among the top 10 in the NL Cy Young voting four times, and made four trips to the All-Star game. Then, from age 24 to the end of his career, Gooden won just 103 more games, finished among the top 10 in a Cy Young balloting once, and never made another All-Star team. He burst onto the scene, dominated like very few pitchers in baseball history have at such a young age, and then burned out nearly as suddenly.

We know now that Gooden’s decline had a lot to do with off-the-field factors that Hernandez can hopefully avoid, but the point remains that regardless of how great a 19-year-old pitcher looks he’s still just a 19-year-old pitcher. Hernandez could very well be on his way to becoming the next Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez, but before he gets there he has to avoid becoming the next Rick Ankiel, Todd Van Poppel or Brien Taylor.

I’d say that Hernandez also has to avoid becoming the next Gooden, but the fact is that winning 194 games in the major leagues is a pretty optimistic prediction for anyone with one career win on his resume. Still, considering how polished and dominant Hernandez has looked in two major league starts and the minor league track record he has, all at the age of 19, anything less than 200 wins would be disappointing. That’s silly to say, but it’s tough to think otherwise at this point.

Felix Hernandez is The Next Big Thing.

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