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Felix Hernandez


It’s been a bleak year for the Mariners. When a team does poorly, it is natural to shift one’s attention to individual performances, but even there, there’s not much to get excited about. I’ve been tracking Ichiro’s march toward another season of 200 hits, a march that has been alarmingly slow.* Perhaps it’s time to shift attention to Felix Hernandez’s superb but little-noted pitching performance this year.

I noted a few days ago in my obituary of my brother-in-law Gary that two Fridays ago — the last time he was awake and alert in my presence — the Mariner-Yankee game was on in the background. The volume was off, but we could still see that Felix was dominating the Yankees. He pitched 8 shutout innings with 11 strikeouts, raising his won-loss record to 9-10 and lowering his ERA to 2.51. In his next outing, last Wednesday in Boston, he gave up one run in 7 and a third innings against the Red Sox, with 9 strikeouts, raising his won-loss record to 10-10 and lowering his ERA to 2.47. He leads the league in innings pitched, is second in strikeouts, third in ERA.

There is that 10-10 record, which doesn’t look so hot, but remember, he’s pitching for the worst-hitting team in baseball. He can’t control what his team does at bat. With any reasonable support, he would have a record more like that of the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia, who last night won his major-league leading 18th game.

Normally, what happens here in Seattle, this provincial baseball outpost, stays in Seattle. But what do you know? People far away are paying attention. At least the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner is. In the weekly Sunday roundup of baseball news around the league, he leads with a discussion of Felix’s plight.

Voters for the Cy Young Award showed last season that they place less emphasis than ever on victories. The National League winner, Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants, had 15, the lowest full-season total for a starter who won the award. Kansas City’s Zack Greinke won in the American League with 16 wins.

Hamels is not a real candidate for the N.L. award (his teammate Roy Halladay will make a strong case), but Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, who has had similar bad luck, should receive consideration in the A.L. The problem is that pesky won-lost record.

Lincecum and Greinke won more than two-thirds of their decisions last season. That is impossible for Hernandez, who is 10-10 after beating Boston on Wednesday. Hernandez finished that start as the league leader in innings (204 1/3) and strikeouts (192), with a 2.47 E.R.A.

Hernandez gives a quality start (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs) almost every time out — 25 of 28. He gives what we could call a high-quality start (seven innings, no more than three earned runs) nearly as often — 20 of 28. Yet he has lost five of those games, and had no decision in another six.

Pitching for the worst offensive team in the majors, Hernandez has had to be nearly perfect to win; his E.R.A. in victories is 0.87. In his 18 other starts, he is 0-10 with a perfectly respectable 3.55 E.R.A.

Just for fun, let’s apply the Mussina principle and give Hernandez victories in half of those 18 starts, which is reasonable for an E.R.A. that low. Nine more victories would give Hernandez 19 with more than a month to go. The A.L. Cy Young race would be all but over.

Something to root for! Go Felix! And go Ichiro!

*The choice of 200 is of course an accident of our use of base 10, but nonetheless, a 200-hit season has become a sign of excellence, and only the greatest of hitters have 200-hit seasons with any frequency. Pete Rose had 10, the record. Those 10 occurred over fifteen seasons, from 1965 to 1979. Ty Cobb had 9, between 1907 and 1924. Ichiro is in his tenth season, and in his first nine he had over 200 hits every time. Thus, if he reaches 200 this year, he will tie Pete Rose for the most 200-hit seasons, and do so in his first ten seasons. An astonishing record. Going into today, he was second in the majors in hits for the season, with 165 (behind Josh Hamilton’s 175). Alas, he went 0 for 4 today against the Twins, so he is still at 165, through 130 games. At that rate, he will reach 205.6 hits at the end of the season (162 games).

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