Friday, February 08, 2013

Initial Reaction: Felix Hernandez deal is sensible

I've been writing quite a bit about the Mariners this offseason. Well, in contrast to how little I've written about everything else, at least, I've written quite a bit about the Mariners. I suppose they're a more interesting team than I realized. They've been undergoing a rebuilding phase that hasn't gone anywhere in several years, and they don't seem to do anything, strategically, outside of the mainstream. Still, they've built an interesting minor league system, and didn't foolishly blow it up like the Royals did. And they have some cool players, none cooler than Felix Hernandez.

Aside: Even the Justin Upton non-deal would have left them with a deep system. Nothing against James Shields, but the Royals simply traded WAY too much for the guy. It's always sort of sad when a player gets remembered for his teams stupidity, whether it's a bad trade or signing a too-expensive contract. Nobody made the Cubs trade Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, and nobody made the Blue Jays give Vernon Wells roughly eleventy billion dollars. But both those players became defined by the stupidity of others.

Anyhow, that (too-long) opening brings me to the topic of Felix Hernandez, who signed a five year, $135.5 million dollar extension. On top of the $39.5 million he's owed the next two years, the move locks him up through 2019 at a cool $175 million, total. My first thought upon hearing the deal? "Yeah, that sounds almost exactly right." Around this time last year, I put together an expansive post ranking the mega-contracts. I plan to do something similar in the next couple weeks, but I haven't yet had the chance. I'm not going to go into quite the same analysis on Hernandez, but rather a basic note that the guy is awesome and possibly getting awesomer.

First off - Hernandez has been around for so long that it seems impossible, but he's still young - he turns 27 in April, even though he already has 98 wins and a Cy Young Award. Plenty of pitchers have been awesome in their early-to-mid 20's and flamed out, and it's possible Hernandez will join this group, but he's proving to be exceptionally durable. After gradually ramping up his innings in his early 20's, he's surpassed 230 innings in each of his last four seasons. While that seems like a lot, many of them have been easy innings - he's only surpassed 1000 batters faced in one of those four.

It's possible that those innings will come back to haunt him, but he's not yet showing any indication of it. Quite the opposite, in fact:


In terms of strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate, he had his best season in 2012. Perhaps more importantly, he also had his most efficient season (which makes sense, considering the notable drop in his walk rate). This makes him not only incredibly good, but incredibly valuable. Particularly on a young staff - and the Mariners look to be working in a number of young pitchers over the next couple of years, with Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton each on several top 50 prospect lists - Hernandez's ability to eat innings, on its own, would be a plus. He's not simply eating those innings, he's dominating them.

There are some negatives, however. First of all, his home run rate on fly balls was quite low, and with the left field fences coming in at Safeco Field, those will almost certainly go up. I expect the home run rate will drop back into the 50-55 batter rate. Still, he induces an extremely high rate of infield pop-ups, so his HR/FB rate should continue to be low. Secondly, his line drave rate was higher in 2012 than in previous years. I don't know what to make of this, considering his improvement in other categories. It could be statistical noise, but it bears watching.


With all this in mind, $175 million over seven years seems a totally sensible deal for a top-five pitcher in his mid-20's. On the softer side of the argument, this is particularly true in Hernandez's case. The Mariners have had little to cheer for in the last ten years, but having one of the best pitchers alive (and one of the most exciting to watch) has surely been enjoyable. I normally get a little skeptical of such non-quantitative arguments, as the Mariners certainly would do better at the gate winning without Hernandez, but the two are hardly mutually exclusive. The Mariners are better with Hernandez, and their fans are happier getting to watch him

By extension, it ends the trade rumors that have followed Hernandez essentially forever. Many of the arguments began with the "The Mariners can't win with Hernandez, they need to deal him to rebuild" argument. Check out this argument from Ken Rosenthal, in 2011:

 I understand the fan opposition to trading Hernandez, but the goal is not to destroy the M’s, it’s to make them better.
The Yankees... are a logical trade partner, deep in young talent and strong enough financially to absorb the $58 million left on the final three years of Hernandez’s contract. For King Felix, other teams would jump, too.
 Remember all that deep young talent the Yankees had in 2011? Yeah. Trading a sublime, Hall of Fame level talent like Hernandez for prospects is a dangerous move. The Mariners would be among the worst teams in baseball if they'd made a deal with the Yankees then. What's worse, though, is that nobody they would've gotten from the Yankees would be looking to make an impact, except for Jesus Montero, who is a Seattle Mariner already.

Finally, we will (hopefully) be free of analyzing Felix Hernandez trade possibilities, and free to examime Felix Hernandez pitching. Hopefully the Mariners can help us see him in the playoffs someday.

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