It wasn’t a dominant performance. It wasn’t really even that good of a performance…but it wasn’t that bad, at least. I’m talking, of course, about Felix Hernandez’s 5.2 inning, 3 run, 6 hit, 1 walk, 3 strikeout performance against the Kansas City Royals tonight. After his last start against San Francisco, many fans, myself included, wondered if Felix’s decline over the last two seasons was more indicative of his career trajectory than his opening day performance. The results of opening day were fine, but the process was only so-so. Well, after tonight…I’m still not sure what to think.
There were certainly positives tonight. Felix threw a season high 69% (nice) of his pitches (63 of 91) for strikes, including 15 first-pitch strikes out of 23 total batters faced. He only walked one—the last batter he faced, Lucas Duda, in the sixth inning. That also means he pitched into the sixth inning, which is also good. Getting ahead early certainly made it tougher for opposing hitters to wait on fat strikes to crush, forcing them to go after “pitchers pitches” and getting themselves out, which is probably a good strategy for Felix at this point in his career.
On the other hand, despite last night’s 10-run outburst, the Royals came into tonight’s game hitting just .226/.294/.327 as a team, good for a 28th-ranked 76 wRC+. The Royals’ batting line against Felix today was .273/.318/.500, and half of their six hits went for extra bases. 47.4% of the balls the Royals put in play against the King were on the ground, which isn’t bad, but well below his career rate of 53.8%. It all added up to a 4.79 FIP, which is fine for a number four starter. I think the Mariners would take that, even though it’s nowhere near what Felix expects from himself. This version of Felix would help the 2018 Mariners, but still be a bit of a bummer to watch, if that makes sense.
Felix’s season now includes one above-average start, one horrible start, and one so-so start. He has as many walks as strikeouts—eight apiece. He’s averaging five innings per start, and is allowing 2.4 home runs per nine innings. His FIP is 7.03, though if you believe the high home run total is a bit anomalous, his xFIP is 5.46. I still don’t know what Felix is. At minimum, I hope he’s like he was tonight, and I’m allowing myself to dream that maybe he’s something close to the guy we saw on opening day against Cleveland. He just can’t be the guy the Mariners saw in San Francisco if they’re going anywhere in 2018. We’ll just have to wait and see which Felix we get, because as far as I’m concerned right now, he’s still a mystery.
The bats, on the other hand, were fantastic again. Really, the only time the offense has been shut down this season was last night against Jakob Junis—even in their low-scoring games against San Francisco and Minnesota, they put a combined 27 men on base. Hitting with runners in scoring position is largely a luck stat, so as long as they’re getting people on base, I’m not worried.
Tonight, the Mariners put 18 runners on base and knocked eight of them in. These guys hit, they take walks, they hit it into the gaps, and they hit it over the fence. And they’re doing this without four of the guys they want to be in their every day lineup! Scoring runs isn’t going to be a problem for this team. After tonight’s performance, the M’s are now hitting .258/.335/.401 with a 115 wRC+ as a team. As of this writing—two games are still in progress—that 115 wRC+ ranks fourth in MLB. It’s going to be scary when this team gets Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino, and Ben Gamel back. Though they might take a hit when Ryon Healy comes back to replace Dan Vogelbach…sorry Ryon, you have to prove it to me first.
Individually, Robinson Cano continues to be unstoppable at the plate. He went 1-2 with a double and two walks tonight to raise his season line to an absurd .414/.541/.552. His 16.2% walk rate would be the highest of his career, which is good, because he probably won’t run a .522 BABIP forever. Robbie’s already posted 0.7 WAR in just 9 games, and has done so without hitting a home run.
Speaking of home runs, Guillermo Heredia now has more home runs than Cano, Jean Segura, and Kyle Seager combined (hat tip to Isabelle Minasian for that little nugget of information). Tonight’s was particularly impressive because it came on an 0-2 pitch. Heredia has three hits now, and two of them are home runs. It’s cool and nostalgic to see Ichiro back, but with all due respect to the legend, Heredia should have been getting the majority of the left field plate appearances from the start of the season. He’s now hitting .231/.353/.692 with just a .111 BABIP (it also should be noted that home runs don’t count positively for BABIP, since home runs by definition are out of the field of play).
I’m convinced that if given playing time, Heredia would be the third best outfielder on this team. Last season, Heredia’s wRC+ numbers by month were 133, 92, 81, 96, 91, and 3. Yes, his September wRC+ in 76 plate appearances was 3. THREE! Of course, we found out after the season that he was dealing with a separated shoulder, which likely contributed to such subpar numbers. That awful month essentially ruined a very solid—and consistent—season leading up to that point, hitting .272/.338/.377 in 350 plate appearances. He can play center field, and has the best outfield arm on the team. Consider Ben Gamel’s streakiness and complete collapse in the second half of last season, I’d play Heredia even over a healthy Gamel. But that’s another post for another day. (And Gamel should definitely play over Ichiro when he returns)
Mean Jean Segura also was impressive, going 3-5 with the biggest hit of the night, a two-run triple in the second inning to give the M’s a 4-0 lead and allow Felix Hernandez to not feel like he had to be perfect to get through the game. Would be nice if he had better hands in the field, though.
One last individual player note: Kyle Seager’s double was a solid line drive into left-center, which is encouraging. Seager has said he’s trying to go the other way more, so it’s nice to see him have some success. I’d prefer him to just do what he’s always been good at—pulling the ball with authority—but if he’s going to try to go the other way, it’s good to see him have some success doing so. It should also be noted that Seager is running a .172 BABIP, so I wouldn’t be too worried about his struggles thus far.
The M’s play day baseball tomorrow with actual ace James Paxton on the bump against fellow lefty flamethrower Danny Duffy at 11:15 a.m. tomorrow, before an off day on Thursday.