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Entries in Seattle Mariners (36)

Friday
May242013

Jesus (Montero) Can't Hit a Curveball

In January of 2012, the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees consummated the rarest of baseball transactions: a challenge trade of young, potential franchise players. Jesus Montero, a hulking catcher with Piazza-like career possibilities, was dealt from New York to Seattle for Michael Pineda, a mountain of a man possessing upper 90s gas and a wicked slider. The swap had no service time considerations, no financial motive. It was simply, "Your cleanup hitter for my ace."

Or so we thought. Pineda's waistline expanded, his velocity shrunk and he underwent surgery for a torn labrum. He has yet to throw a regular-season pitch in pinstripes. And Montero? His 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame has produced just a .377 slugging percentage in Seattle, and he just got booted off the M's roster.

With all due respect to Eddie Harris from Major League, I'm just gonna say it: Jesus can't hit a curveball. The 23-year-old Montero's big league career is being held back by serious pitch recognition issues against the breaker. Check out Montero's swing rate by pitch location against curveballs during his short career, and then the MLB average:

Montero's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2012-13

 

Swing rate vs. curveballs for MLB hitters

Two things immediately stand out, and neither is good: Montero swings at fewer in-zone curveballs (44%) than the average big league hitter (55%), and he chases more curves out of the zone (39% for Montero, 28% MLB average). On a related note, Jesus has been one of the worst curveballs hitters in the majors over the past two years. His slugging percentage against curves during the 2012-13 seasons is more than 200 points below the MLB average:

Lowest slugging percentage vs. curveballs, 2012-13

We knew that Montero would struggle to hit the curve, but his bat figured to make him a stud nonetheless. But, now that he can't hit the curve, it might be time for Jesus to make an offering to Jobu.

Sunday
Feb102013

Will King Felix Be Like Tom Terrific, Or Doc Gooden?

Felix Hernandez has been historically excellent as a youngster, ranking 15th all-time in Wins Above Replacement among starting pitchers through age 26. He also has a lot of mileage on his golden right arm. Hernandez has thrown 1,620 innings in the majors so far, the highest total for an Expansion-Era pitcher through age 26 since Dwight Gooden tossed 1,713 frames from 1984-1991.

With Hernandez on the verge of signing a contract extension that will keep him in Seattle through the 2019 season at a cool $175 million, it's worth asking: How have other pitching phenoms fared in their later years? Do they keep on racking up Cy Youngs, or do they crash and burn? Unfortunately, the answer isn't nearly that neat and tidy. History suggests that Felix could be anything from an inner-circle Hall-of-Famer to a guy who has to buy his own ticket into Cooperstown.

Using Baseball-Reference's Player Index tool, I made a list of Expansion-Era starting pitchers who accumulated between 25 and 35 Wins Above Replacement through their age-26 seasons. Hernandez has 31.5 through age 26, so these guys were in the same ballpark as the King. Here's the list, with WAR totals before and after age 26:

You can't get a much wider range of outcomes than this. Tom Seaver remained a workhorse into his early forties. So did Roger Clemens, either through a Nolan Ryan-esque work ethic or a willingness to turn himself into a science experiment, depending upon whom you ask. Pedro dominated into his early thirties before breaking down physically.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jim Maloney suffered numerous shoulder and arm injuries before tearing his Achilles trying to leg out a hit. He threw his last pitch at age 31. Dean Chance lost his fastball and was out of the game at age 30. Doc Gooden was done as a durable, productive starter by 28, though he hung around through injury and substance abuse problems long enough to throw a no-hitter and capture a pair of World Series rings with the Yankees.

Will King Felix's career turn out like Tom Terrific's, or Doc Gooden's (minus the legal run-ins)? I have no idea, but that's the $175 million question.

Sunday
Feb102013

With Improved Fastball Command, Felix Still King

Not since the days of Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden and Bret Saberhagen has a starting pitcher had as good of a start to his career as Felix Hernandez. But the curly-haired teenager throwing upper 90s gas who debuted with the Mariners back in 2005 would scarcely recognize the crafty 26-year-old who's set to sign a contract extension that will pay him the highest average annual salary ($27.1 million) ever for a pitcher. King Felix's fastball no longer sizzles toward home plate, but he has extended his reign with improved command of the pitch.

Hernandez's fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour at the beginning of the Pitch F/X era in 2008, a mark bested only by Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana among qualified starting pitchers. Last year, Felix's average velocity with both his four-seam fastball and sinker was 92.4 MPH -- just a tick above the 91.2 MPH average for right-handers. Yet, batters didn't really do all that much more damage against Hernandez's fastball last year (.410 slugging percentage) than they did in 2008 (.396).

How has Felix remained so effective with seemingly run-of-the-mill velocity? By hitting his spots. He's throwing fewer fastballs over the heart of the plate as he makes the transition from flame-thrower to marksman:

Hernandez's percentage of fastballs thrown over the horizontal middle of the plate, 2008-12

2008: 22.9%

2009: 22.4%

2010: 23.4%

2011: 20.3%

2012: 19.8%

MLB AVG for SP: 23.6%

Fastballs left over the middle of the plate tend to get thumped (batters slugged .502 last year) and Felix's is no exception (.525 opponent slugging percentage), so avoiding that spot is key. Few did a better job of that in 2012: Dan Haren (19.6%), Doug Fister (19.5%), Jason Vargas (19.1%), Tommy Milone (18.9%), and Jeremy Hellickson (18.5%) were the only AL starters who threw a lower percentage of fastballs over the horizontal middle of the plate.

King Felix, power pitcher, is dead. Long live King Felix, command-and-control artist.