This annotated week in baseball history: April 5 – April 11, 1986

On April 8, 1986 Felix Hernandez was born. The man known as “King Felix” is having a good week—and a good career—so far, but Richard takes a look to see how he compares to young pitchers throughout history.

At the Oscars’ this year, A.R. Rahman—in the course of roughly 10 minutes—won an Award for his score of Slumdog Millionaire, performed two of the song he had written from that film, both Oscar nominated, and then won a second Oscar for one of the songs. That’s a good ten minutes. In fact, it’s a ten minutes that is pretty hard to imagine being topped.

This week hasn’t been quite that good for Felix Hernandez, but it has still been one he’ll look back on fondly. On Monday he opened the season for the Mariners, facing the Twins. Hernandez went eight innings, allowed just one run and struck out six. He earned the victory in the M’s 6-1 win. Two days later, “King Felix” reached age 23, which was no doubt cause for celebration.

So now that Hernandez’ career up to age 22 is over, it seems an appropriate time to look back not only at what he has done, but also at all pitchers through their age 22 season, and see where he falls among the list.

The classic pitching statistic is, of course, wins. While the flaws of judging a pitcher on such a number are well established, there is something to be said for a pitcher who can rack up the victories. The all-time leader in wins through age 22 is, somewhat to my surprise, a well-known Hall of Famer, Bob Feller.

Rapid Robert made his debut at age 17, and pitched for the Indians each year until 1941 and age 22. At that point his career was interrupted for service in the Second World War, he would not return until 1945. Before going in service of his country, Feller won 107 games (against just 54 losses, good for the third best winning percentage among under 22’s with at least 500 innings pitched). Feller won 76 games at ages 20-22, which is more than 20 ahead of any other similarly aged post-WWI pitcher.

Among the top ten in wins for the group, early success portended future results. Four of the pitchers would eventually head to the Hall of Fame—Feller, Chief Bender, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson—and Bert Blyleven deserves to join them. (A fifth, Babe Ruth, would also have a Hall of Famer career, but whether he would have made it as a pitcher is beyond my speculative abilities.)

Nonetheless, the list does demonstrate some of the dangers of pitching at the Major League level at a young age. Joe Wood is second on the list with 81 wins, but that was almost 70% of his career total. But that’s a percentage Pete Schneider surely would have accepted. He won 59 games through age 22 (eighth all-time) and not a single, solitary game thereafter, failing to pitch in the Major Leagues after his age 23 season.

In such elite company, Hernandez suffers from the comparison. This is to some extent unfair since Hernandez is pitching both with the modern workload, and with one carefully monitored to ensure he go the way of Wood or Schneider.

(As a side note, saves are apparently rarely trusted to young pitchers, the all-time leader through age 22 is Terry Forster with 70, while still active Huston Street is second with 60. But the totals are generally low, Ambiorix Burgos and Lloyd Allen are tied for tenth, and each has just 20.)

But wins aren’t the only way to measure a pitcher’s quality. One of the more popular and quick ways to look at it is through ERA+. ERA+ is a not a perfect measure (it has some problems with relievers, among other things) but for easy cross-era comparisons, it does the job.

Setting a minimum of 500 innings, the all-time leader in ERA+ through age 22 is a name we saw before, Joe Wood. Wood, who pitched more than 1000 innings during the period up to age 22, clocked in with a 155 ERA+. Second on the list is the equally impressive Dwight Gooden. Gooden debuted at age 19, but it was his age 20 season that is notable. Almost surely the best season by any pitcher 22 or younger, Gooden’s 1985 featured 24 wins, a 228 ERA+ and 276 innings. For good measure, he struck out nearly a man an inning that year. Gooden was never that great again—few are, after all—but he deserves his place amongst the greatest young pitchers of all-time.

The rest of the ERA+ is fairly predictable having seen the wins list, with Johnson, Feller, Mathewson, and others featuring on both lists. Here Hernandez begins to join better company; his ERA+ of 114 ranks him twenty-eighth all-time, ahead of Hall of Famers like Bender, Red Ruffing, and Catfish Hunter at the same age.

(Come to that, he has a higher ERA+ than Hunter had by the time he retired.)

Finally, for a statistic in which Hernandez fairs extremely well, we come to strikeouts. Or rather, strikeouts per nine innings. It is true that pitchers strike out more batters these days than they did in the past. Nonetheless, Hernandez’ rank in this category is impressive. Of the 73 pitchers who pitched at least 500 innings through age 22, he comes in fourth, with more than eight strikeouts per nine.

The all-time leader here is “Sudden” Sam McDowell, who fanned more than 9.5 per nine innings, something he had to do since he was also walking more than five men over those same nine innings. (Hernandez also does well in BB/9, one of just 30 pitchers to have a number under three.)

As good as Felix Hernandez’ enjoyed this past week, I imagine the information that he’s not among the greatest young pitchers of all-time (were it even to reach him) wouldn’t be enough to ruin it. But he should take comfort in his prominent place on the lists of ERA+ and K/9, where his statistics rank with (and above) some high caliber pitchers. If Hernandez keeps up his performance of Opening Day, we may be revisiting this list in a year to see just how far along he has come.

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