King Felix: As Good as Advertised
As a fan or a professional observer, sometimes you read a scouting report that tells you how good a player can be. However, that is just one entity's opinion. You can look at stat lines and draw every bit of information out of them that is humanly possible, but that rarely tells the whole story.
I have followed Felix Hernandez since the Mariners handed him a $700,000 signing bonus at age 16. Scouring the net for statistical backing and any semblance of a scout's take on him, I often found him dominating at every stop. I read every scouting report praising his heat, his solid change-up, and his breath-taking curveball.
I have also read how he is keeping his slider, potentially his best pitch, under wraps until he matures physcially. That was all well and good, but I wasn't going to be convinced until I could see it for myself.
You can make an assessment about the talent level of a player through the aforementioned imperfect methods, but you still don't know the truth. You can't. There is no other way to know for sure until you see the player on the field.
Well, seeing is believing.
I, like most everyone else, got my first glimpse of "King Felix" at the 2004 Futures Game in Houston. He was impressive as he struck out David Wright, one of the top handful of offensive prospects in all of baseball, on a curve that was every bit as good as had been described. He allowed a hit to Brewers prospect Prince Fielder, but showed excellent movement on his fastball. He got out of the inning by inducing a double play off the bat of then-Dodgers catching prospect, Koyie Hill.
Since he needed just seven pitches to get out of the inning, I was left wanting more. I saw the movement on his blazing fastball and the amazing break on his curve, but it wasn't enough. I had to see more, and I had to see it in person.
So I made no more bones about it, I was going to make the trip to the M's spring training facilities to see this phenom, up close and personal.
After the 2000-mile flight to the desert, the time had come.
Hernandez was scheduled to pitch in a spring training game on March 14 against the Padres in Peoria, Arizona. The right-hander had been roughed up in his last start, and in this outing he appeared to have a chip on his shoulder.
He wasn't going to let anyone get in his way this time.
Khalil Greene, an established player, was first up. The soon-to-be 19-year-old hurler quickly struck him out with one of the best pitches I have ever seen. I was positioned directly behind the plate so it was clear as day. "Kid K" just threw his phantom slider, and it was quite a sight.
Jesse Garcia was his next victim, also striking out on the slider. The biggest challenge, all-star Brian Giles, was due up next.
He battled Felix to a full count and was clearly expecting a fastball. Hernandez, however, displayed his trust in his entire arsenal and his willingness to throw any pitch at any point in the count.
He delivered a change, low and away, fooling Giles, who sent a weak grounder to short and was easily thrown out at first.
Hernandez came out for the second inning and continued to impress. He quickly struck out the left-handed batting Mark Sweeney, but then allowed a single to Jon Knott.
One of Hernandez's reported shortcomings is said to be his ability to hold runners and maintain his level of focus with men on base. With this knowledge, Knott took off for second at his first opportunity, but thanks to a quick delivery to the plate and great throw by Dan Wilson, Knott was gunned down at second.
OK, so Wilson helps Hernandez with his slight issue of work with runners on base by throwing out the only baserunner he had up that point. Nothing's changed. Right?
Ramon Hernandez was up next and punched a single through the right side, then gave way to pinch runner, Freddy Guzman, one of the fastest players in professional baseball. Guzman's wheels were sure to be in the back of the mind of the M's prized prospect.
As the count went to 1-1 to Xavier Nady, Hernandez kept Guzman close with two solid moves to first. The 1-1 pitch was a crisp slider for a strike, and Guzman took off. Wilson again popped up and threw a laser to second base, where Jose Lopez applied the tag on Guzman, ending the inning. You can credit Wilson all you want, but the kid kept his composure with a bigtime base-stealing threat on base and didn't let it bother him in the least.
With some help from Wilson, Hernandez passed this test.
Hernandez needed just 31 pitches to get through his two innings. He threw 13 fastballs, a solid mix of two and four-seamers, ranging from 92 to 96 miles per hour. He mixed in four solid change-ups to keep hitters off balance, and flipped seven curveballs and seven unhittable sliders at the six-plus hitters he faced.
King Felix showed command, poise, and mound presence usually reserved for pitchers far advanced, in both age and experience. He spotted the fastball, pulled the string on the change, and hammered the curve. However, his slider was beyond any of my dream-like expectations.
Sitting in the mid-80's, the pitch started off with the appearance of a fastball. About half-way to the plate, just as the hitter was ready to commit, it began its nosedive. By the time the batter realized this, it was too late. The ball was out of the strike zone and the batter was swinging at air. Simply unfair.
Not to take anything away from Clint Nageotte's brilliant breaking ball, but Kid K's nasty hard slider is the best pitch in the system, and perhaps all of the minor or major leagues.
I was ready to be amazed by Hernandez - and I was. I was more anxious to see him pitch than anything else going on at camp. I'm glad I was able to see a good outing from him, but even if he was hit around a bit, the pitches would have still been there. The process is just as important as the results and at least on March 14, both were stellar.
Still, seeing a teenager with an arsenal as amazing as Hernandez possesses, it is easy to see why he is widely regarded as the best pitching prospect in baseball. The comparisons to Doc Gooden are valid. He is every bit as good as advertised. However, don't take my word for it, see it for yourself. He'll be appearing every five or six days in Tacoma, but probably only for a few months. Get your tickets now.
After all, seeing is believing.
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