The King Holds Court in New York
Felix Hernandez threw one of the easiest-looking, most dominant complete games of the season, taking down the New York Yankees 1-0 by allowing only 2 hits while striking out 6. His performance was efficient, with only 102 total pitches thrown, and appeared so effortless because only one solitary Yankee got to 2nd base (Cano in the 1st) and no one advanced passed there.
King Felix used a variety of pitches, all of which where executed with pinpoint precision, to take down the 3rd highest scoring offense in baseball. The Yankees didn’t field there best lineup but it still contained plenty of All-Star starters, including Robby Cano, Derek Jeter, and Curtis Granderson. Only Cano was able to muster a hit as the trio went a combined 1-11 with a walk and 2 strikeouts. The only other Yankee hit was an infield single by Ichiro which skipped off a diving Mike Carp’s glove.
The biggest reason for this sort of dominance was Hernandez’s control. Hernandez frequently “pounded the knees”, which means that he focused primarily on aiming at a catcher’s knees. As you can see from the strike zone plot from BrooksBaseball.net, Hernandez dominated the inside left corner, racking up called strikes and ground outs. King Felix established the inside corner to righties early in the game, and was able to get the umpire to extend the zone a bit on the corner as the game went on. The best pitchers have this ability, and Hernandez is no doubt among the best.
These low strikes are excellent pitches that tend to result in ground balls and weak pop-ups as well, especially when they’re thrown in the low-to-mid-90s like Hernandez can. The Yankees hit 10 ground balls which resulted in 11 outs, 4 infield pop-ups, and struck out 6 separate times. That’s 21 of the possible 27 outs made by infielders or strikeouts, which is hugely important in the homerun friendly Yankee Stadium, where an average fly ball can find it’s way out of the park down the line.
It’s also important for Hernandez to allow opposing hitters to put the ball in play, because Seattle has the league’s best team defense this season. The Mariners currently turn 71.2% of all balls put into play into outs, which ranks first in baseball. They have excellent defenders in both the infield and outfield, especially up the middle with Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley. The franchise has put an emphasis on defensive play in recent seasons and it is statistically paying of in 2012.
John Jaso, mostly a backup catcher this season, has also developed quite the working relationship with Hernandez. Jaso is an excellent defensive catcher he’s allowed a stolen base per every 15.2 innings behind the plate, which is a near-elite rate, and he’s an excellent blocker on pitches in the dirt. Hernandez has now thrown to Jaso in 5 starts, and is 5-0 with a 0.66 ERA. They haven’t been beating cupcakes either, besting New York and Texas, the league’s best offense, twice apiece. This is a pairing that Eric Wedge may want to keep using, because after 41.1 innings, it’s apparent that it works.
If King Felix keeps pitching as well as he has in his last 5 starts (4-0 record with a 1.04 ERA, 31 strikeouts , .226 opponents’ on-base %) he’s a near lock to win his 2nd career Cy Young, even with fierce competition from Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, and David Price. Hernandez’s overall season line (10-5, 2.63 ERA, 159 K’s, 41 BBs) puts him in the top-3 with 10-12 more starts left on his season. He currently leads the American League in strikeouts, while tying Verlander for 3rd in ERA, and ranking 5th in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). He’s also 3rd in complete games (3) and tied for first with Brandon Morrow with 3 shutouts. I, for one, hope he continues to pitch at this level, because when Hernandez is at the top of his game, very few can approach the King’s throne.