||07-03-2007 01:57 PM
King Felix, MySpace, and pitch selection
There's a pretty amazing story about baseball player-internet fan synergy going on over in Seattle these days. It seems that King Felix has been in touch via his MySpace page with several denizens of the Mariners blogosphere, who have been writing ferociously about how his recent pitch selection (pound the fastball early) has doomed him in the early innings, and how he should mix in his off-speed stuff earlier on. The impressionable 20 year-old ace apparently actually read some of their posts and explained that he had never been exposed to their type of analysis. The entire Mariners blogosphere hung in anticipation of Felix's next start (last night against the Royals) during which they thought he might actually employ their suggestions, against the wishes of (now-resigned) manager Mike Hargrove and his coaching staff.
Anyway, that's where this recent post by Jeff over at Lookout Landing comes in. Like much of his game coverage every day, it's obsessive to detail, informed by an unquenchable love for the Mariners, and often exhilirating to read (at least for we of baseball fandom). I've excerpted the part where he talks about Felix's game decisions, but you can see the whole post here:
I'll admit it - for mostly selfish reasons I'd been looking forward to this game for days. Never in the past four years did I think that anything someone said on a blog could have any effect on what takes place on the field. And why would I? That's not why people write; if you're blogging with the intent of having an influence on a player or a team, you're probably in for a huge letdown. That said, given the opportunity, who wouldn't be excited? I've never been a big fan of savoring personal accomplishments for too long, but if ever there were a thing that could make me step back from the computer and say "holy crap," this was it. Felix is our prize possession, and thanks in enormous part to the incredible work of Dave Cameron and Dan Fox, he'd at last been presented with the information that, once digested, could help him finally turn the corner. Even being able to get him the data blew my mind, but a realistic chance that he'd actually apply it in a game? That's the sort of thing that would help me die happy.
So, yeah, I could hardly wait to get home from work and flip on the ol' MLB.tv to see what would happen. I was in such eager anticipation for Felix to take the hill that I barely even noticed the Mariners torching Gil Meche in the top of the first. Jose Guillen continued a three-at-bat streak of awesomeness with a quick two-run single up the middle, and it looked like we were in for Gil's trademarked Big Inning and an early laugher. Richie followed that with a base hit of his own, but then we were given the first ominous sign of impending terror - Kenji Johjima hit a screaming liner right at third base, and a dropped catch at second was all that kept us from a most unfortunate double play. Adrian Beltre then flew out to end the inning, and despite some ugly work on the hill and a bunch of solid contact, the Mariners carried only a two-run lead into the bottom half. It felt like more. It should've been more. It wasn't. I didn't like that.
Now, before I get to talking about Felix's performance tonight, I want to address something. Ever since the pitch selection argument was first brought up, there's been carping and disagreement. A lot of people think Felix really does need to establish the fastball and go from there. Their three main criticisms are as follows:
Felix is a power pitcher with a 97mph fastball. All power pitchers build off their heater. Why should Felix be any different?
You guys want Felix to throw fewer fastballs. For one thing, that'll make it easier to hit offspeed stuff, and for another, it makes him more likely to get hurt.
It's not a pitch selection problem, it's a command problem.
I will now issue my responses to these criticisms for hopefully the last time:
Felix isn't every other power pitcher. Felix is the rare power pitcher who's been gifted with even more tremendous secondary stuff. By throwing the fastball all the time in predictable counts, he's essentially negating the rest of his advantage over the batter.
I don't want Felix to throw fewer fastballs. I want Felix to throw fewer predictable fastballs. All year long he's come out throwing heater after heater in the first inning, allowing a .963 OPS with a 13.7% strikeout rate as batters sit on the pitch. After the first, he usually becomes much better at mixing things up, and the results have been a .778 OPS and 26.3% strikeout rate. Batters can only hit consistently if they have a pretty good idea of what's coming. That's what Felix needs to avoid. And as far as the injury talk is concerned, he hurt himself using the fastball arm slot. That's why he's dropped down since. His curveball's never hurt him one bit.
It's only a command problem in that Felix has terrible command of his fastball. And guess what? If you have bad command of a pitch, you probably shouldn't throw it 15 straight times to start every game. If Felix had pinpoint location of his fastball it'd be a different story, but he doesn't, he never has, and he probably never will, so trying to force it is a stupid strategy. In terms of command, his fastball is probably his worst pitch (currently tied with the changeup, which hasn't been good of late). He's much better with the slider and curve. And because those pitches move, he even has a little wiggle room. The fastball's straight. When the batter can see it coming, that's trouble.
...now then, on to the bottom of the first. David DeJesus led off and - surprise! - got three fastballs and lined the third into right for a double. The next batter was Esteban German, who got - surprise! - a ton of fastballs and grounded an RBI single into center. Two batters, all fastballs, two hits, run on the board. I wasn't ready to call Felix an idiot; I did call Felix an idiot. By the looks of things, he was completely ignoring the data and going ahead with his usual strategy, with the usual results. Days of anticipation felt like days wasted.
Then something clicked. Felix abandoned the fastball and got a strikeout and double play in the span of seven pitches. This was big news. Against Boston in his previous start, Felix basically fed heaters to the first four guys he saw before changing things up. Today it took half that long. That's progress. I couldn't help but think that, after the German single, Felix thought "okay maybe I should consider that information after all" and switched gears. Is that what happened? I have no idea, but it was encouraging nonetheless, and even if it was just a coincidence, that's still something to build off. It was an annoying run for Felix to allow, but the optimistic part of my brain told me to be happy because it looked like Felix might finally be learning. If so, then the run was way, way worth it.
Then things got dull. And for a long time, too. While Felix went about his business, mixing pitches effectively and getting terrific results, the Mariners stopped hitting Meche, a drastic change from his gascan appearance in the first. There were a few almost-exciting moments, like Raul Ibanez's deep fly that chased DeJesus to the wall, but for the most part it was another awful display of ineptitude against a spectacularly inefficient pitcher who a better lineup would've chased from the game by the fourth. Gil threw just 66 strikes on 113 pitches through 6.1, but because the Mariners love to bail out sloppy pitchers, he left to a standing ovation. Okay, yeah, so Kansas City holds pitchers to a different standard than the rest of us do. The hitting was still pathetic, though.
Unfortunately, the two runs might've still been enough were it not for a 2-2 mistake to DeJesus in the third. Felix had the right idea and came after him with a curveball, a pitch the Royals hadn't been touching, but he hung it at the belt and DeJesus had his first homer in 61 games. Right then and there we all had the same two thoughts: "okay even Willie could've taken that one yard," and "I bet that's the end of the offspeed stuff."
But it wasn't. In what I thought was one of the most startling moments of Felix's season so far, he came right back with sliders and curveballs to German, who grounded out to end the inning. Felix could've taken the homer as evidence that all of us pitch selection guys are retarded, yet instead he kept right on working like we wanted him too. I couldn't help but smile. Yeah, the run sucked. Again. But if this was really going to be the game that got Felix thinking on the mound, I was willing to pay the short-term price for the long-term gain.