Bronx, NY, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Credit: William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE
Saturday in New York, Seattle's Félix Hernández pitched brilliantly against the Yankees, finishing with a two-hit shutout against one of the league's best-hitting teams. Was this one of King Felix's best ever?
Hernández has been a great pitcher for a long time, but he might now be at the peak of his powers; his home-run rate is a career low, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career high. He entered this season with four career shutouts, and with nearly two months left to go, he's already got three shutouts this season.
After Saturday's gem, in which he allowed only two hits and two walks, while striking out six, the Mariners' post-game host wondered aloud if this had been the best start of King Felix's career. With all the commercial breaks, I wasn't able to hang around long enough for the conclusion. But I figure I'll give it a go, myself ...
As usual, I begin by looking at Game Scores, because they're easy and they're logical and we have to begin somewhere.
Short Answer: Saturday's gem probably was not Hernández's best start. Because of the strikeouts. Now, if you get a bunch of guys in a room and ask them about Game Scores, half will argue that strikeouts count too much and half will argue that strikeouts don't count enough. Which probably means it's just about right. Because he struck out only six Yankees, yesterday's Game Score was 87, which is tied for the fifth-best in Hernández's career.
Of course, one thing Game Score doesn't consider is the quality of the opposing hitters. It's not designed to do that. Another thing it doesn't consider: the ballpark. It's not designed to do that, either. I decided to ignore the second of those, because it's complicated, but I devised a quick-and-dirty method to account for the competition, based on that team's rank in league scoring.
Here's an real-world example ... On June 30, 2010, Hernandez shut out the Yankees. His Game Score was 91. The Yankees finished that season first in the American League in scoring. There are 14 teams in the American League, so I give them 14 points for their run production. But I don't want to blow the system up, so I halve that figure (and round down, if the first number is odd). In this case, we add seven points to the Game Score and ... voila, we've got a modified Game Score of 98 ... which, as it happens, is the second best in Hernández's career.
Got all that? Thrilling details, I know! Anyway, here are what I will argue are King Felix's five best starts ...
5. August 4, 2012 - @ Yankees (modified Game Score: 92)
We sorta talked about this one already. Really impressive, and while the Yankees are just fourth in the American League in scoring, they're actually first in OPS. Which makes me wonder about my methodology.
4. June 28, 2012 - vs. Red Sox (mGS: 95)
Five hits, one walk, 13 strikeouts. Oh, and the final score was 1-0, so it's not like Hernández could ever relax. Then again, I'm not sure that's a positive marker in these discussions. Couldn't you argue that it's more difficult to pitch this brilliantly when you've got an eight-run lead?
3. April 11, 2007 - @ Red Sox (mGS: 95)
Actually quite similar to his start against the Yankees yesterday: two hits, one walk, six strikeouts. And the Red Sox were a good-hitting team in 2007. This one would rank higher, again, except for the strikeouts.
2. July 14, 2012 - vs Rangers (mGS: 100)
The Rangers lead the American League in scoring, yes. But they're not quite as potent as on the road, and this game was played at the pitcher's haven we call Safeco Field. Felix did pitch a complete-game shutout, giving up three hits and zero walks, while striking out a dozen Rangers. One could easily rank this performance No. 1, but instead I'm going with ...
1. June 30, 2010 - @ Yankees (mGS: 98)
We talked about this one already, too. The Yankees did lead the American League in scoring that season. Just as in yesterday's game, Hernández gave up two hits. He walked three, but struck out 11 Yankees. Also, the American League seems to be slightly more pitcher-friendly in 2012 than 2010.
I'm not saying I nailed these in the perfect order. You could always look at park effects, and the actual hitters in the lineups, and come up with slightly different results. But we're close enough for government work, I think.
The real take-home is that three of Hernández's best starts in a fantastic career have come this season: two of those above, plus eight one-hit innings against the Twins back in early May. Which isn't to say that he's actually got significantly better, over the years. Rather, he's improved just a little -- after all, he's still only 26 -- while the game has generally become more pitcher-friendly.
One thing Félix Hernández has never done? Pitched a no-hitter. But the way things are going, that now seems just a matter of time.