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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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July 1, 2008 10:18 AM

The "ace" prototype

Posted by Geoff Baker

Happy Canada Day, folks. Though, from the looks of things, a whole lot of visiting fans were celebrating Canada Day last night. Anyhow, as some of you have mentioned, no harm getting shut out 2-0 by a guy looking like this year's Cy Young Award winner. Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays may only be 9-6. But he has as many complete games -- six -- as any other team in the American League. Halladay currently sits sixth in AL earned run average, but is blowing away the field with 130 1/3 innings pitched. His 6-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is also the best of any AL starter in the top-20 ERA-wise.

Yes, he's that good.

Over the past 16 months running this blog, I've made a number of references to Halladay in regards to Felix Hernandez. Unfortunately for Hernandez, he's now on the DL. Not a huge setback. The team simply couldn't afford to go through a second night of an all-bullpen start after tonight's. Some of you were wondering yesterday why the team simply didn't call up another starter for tonight's game. Well, the thing is, somebody would have had to be sent down to Class AAA. Likely Roy Corcoran. And you don't want to lose a relief pitcher with Miguel Batista already shaky, Hernandez not right and those free-swinging Detroit Tigers looming for a four-game series. The team had been hoping to avoid losing Hernandez another week to the DL. So, it crossed its fingers, waited for yesteday and hoped Hernandez could make it back to the mound later this week. When that was obviously not going to be a possibility, it placed him on the DL and freed up the roster spot to add Cesar Jimenez. This way, you don't lose a reliever.

There you go. No big mystery. No conspiracy of incompetence. Just that.

Anyhow, back to Hernandez and Halladay. We could include Erik Bedard in this discussion, but, from what I've seen the first half of the season, Hernandez is a better comparison. He's a power pitcher. Has all the right "stuff'' to be a future ace, including the innings durability and the knack for going eight or nine innings when he's on.

As I've mentioned a few times before, Hernandez is still ahead of where Halladay was at the same age. Halladay was 21 when I saw him break in with the Blue Jays back in 1998. Hernandez is already in his fourth season (third full season) at age 22. That's huge from a developmental standpoint.

Halladay didn't break through in his development until his fourth full year (that would be next season for Hernandez) and had a massive failure one season prior to that, the 2001 campaign, in which he was shipped back to Class A ball to reinvent himself in terms of repetoire and his psychological approach to the game.

What happened after that? Simply put, Halladay became a machine. I watched his performance with my girlfriend, Amy, on TV last night. She'd seen him pitch before, during her frequent visits to Toronto before I moved here. Her first comments upon seeing him was: "He's thinner.''

Yes, he is.

After that: "He looks like a machine.''

Yes, in fact, Ever since the "new" Halladay stepped forward in 2002, he has always seemed like the perfect robotic prototype of what a starting pitcher should be. Like one of those Terminator machines in one of Arnold's movies. An unstoppable force coming at you unrelentingly.

And you have to watch Halladay up close to get an even truer appreciation for what he does. Watching on TV, you can see it in his face on the mound. The intensity. The focus. I've never seen a pitcher more intense than Halladay up-close. Maybe Roger Clemens. He's a guy Halladay spent a bit of time with in 1998. I'm not surprised that he would remind me of The Rocket.

Anyone who's spent time training with Halladay will tell you that his workouts are crazy. He's a horse. So much so, the team had him cut back on his workout schedule because they feared it was leading to him overtraining. Didn't want his body breaking down. Halladay has this set routine that involves him waking up in the wee hours of the morning, running a bunch of miles and then getting into the serious strength training and between-starts work. He doesn't deviate from it. And it's hard work. There is no time off with this guy. No goofing around time. Every minute of every day, from the moment spring training begins until the final pitch of the season is thrown, is dedicated towards making him the best pitcher he can be.

He told me once that, on the day of his starts, he can't remember what anyone says to him. Even if his wife tries talking to him, he won't remember even having a conversation the next day. This was the stuff drilled into him by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, a guy some Mariners have used before. Halladay improvised some of those teachings and went on to develop his own approach.

Why am I going on and on about Halladay? Not to bore you with thoughts about the Blue Jays. To apply it to this current M's team. If you understand what you want Hernandez (or Bedard, but like I said, I think Hernandez has the best shot of actually doing it) to become, you have to understand the guy who should be his end goal. If you want a Halladay fronting your rotation, you need to understand what Halladay is. He's not just a bunch of stats. He is a machine. He is the definition of present-day excellence and long-term excellence. It's been five years since his Cy Young. But he is still providing that excellence day-in, day-out. He is an "ace". Not a pretender to that title. Not a potential "ace" having a few good weeks. A proven ace.

What does Hernandez have to do to get there?

Look, I'm not going to pretend Hernandez and Halladay are the same person. They aren't.

Halladay would never be seen playing "flip" with teammates (tapping a ball around to each other with their gloves, standing in a circle) on the sidelines before batting practice. He just doesn't have the time. That doesn't mean Hernandez can't do it. There's nothing wrong with a little "team time" for a guy who, let's face it, will be counted on as a leader of this squad down the road.

But Hernandez doesn't have the off-field routine Halladay does. Not yet. There is no baby fat on Halladay. There is still some on Hernandez.

I like what I've seen from Hernandez the past two years as far as working out goes. From what I'm told, he is taking it very seriously and has gotten himself -- obviously -- in better shape. But is he dedicating every fiber of his being to becoming the best pitcher in the game? I think he can still do more. It will take time. He's young and when he can see progress on the mound, which he's started to make again since May, it's tough for anyone to believe they aren't working as hard as they possibly can at it.

Halladay also had that career scare back in 2001 to motivate him into taking things to that next level. Hernandez hasn't. Not yet, anyway. He's been steadily progressing. Every year. Not with lightning speed, but steadily.

Most importantly, he understands what he has to do to be more like Halladay when he's on the mound. If you check out Halladay's pitch counts, he has yet to go beyond 120 for any of his complete games. That's efficiency. Hernandez is well aware of the need to be efficient. He understands better that he does not have to strike out 10 batters per game to help his team the most. Hernandez doesn't always succeed in putting these theories into practice. But he is at least aware of it. He tries. That's a huge step. And he has the physical stamina to do the things Halladay does. He could go 130 pitches if he needed to. Halladay can do that too. He just doesn't want to. So, he makes it a moot discussion by staying efficient.

Bottom line? Next season will be the one in which the comparisons between Hernandez and a guy like Halladay can really start to take place. So far, Hernandez has the building blocks. He's got the slightly better ERA at 2.83 (though Halladay's ERA+ is better by one point), while his innings pitched is in the top-5 (and should let him surpass 200 for the first time). The 3-1 strkeouts-to-walks ratio is also promising. Hernandez was rather ordinary the first few weeks of May, when this team was falling off the map. He's picked it up a notch since, going seven innings or more in four of five starts before going down to that ankle injury.

He was going five or six innings routinely before this latest run. But that's not good enough. Not for a team relying on him to be an "ace" down the road. Yes, that's a high standard to ask for. As a pitcher this year, Hernandez has been the best on this team. Better than Bedard over the long haul. Not by mid-May, when the team fell out of it, but the long haul. The games really don't count any more, so every performance now has to be kept with that in mind. But from a developmental standpoint, Hernandez is morphing into what the team hopes he can become.

Another Halladay. Another true "ace" from start to finish.

He's not there yet. There is another level he has to reach. It should be interesting to watch and see what happens from here.

ADDITIONAL NOTES (12:19 p.m.): For Resin in the comments thread, you are correct in noting that Halladay hasn't surpassed 200 K since his 2003 Cy Young Award season. That's intentional. His worst season (since 2001) was in 2004, after he'd nearly blown his arm out winning that Cy Young. Halladay was plagued by arm fatigue that year, so he changed his approach to a more pitch-to-contact, efficient style. Doesn't need strikeouts as much. Was running away with the 2005 Cy Young race until a line drive broke his leg right before the all-star break and ended his season. That year was arguably better than his Cy Young season to that point.

As to the Jeff Fassero comparison somebody made, Fassero had similar stats early, yes. But much of it came in the lighter-hitting NL. Fassero never cracked the top-8 in a Cy Young race. Halladay has a career ERA+ of 129 over a decade in the AL. Didn't face many pitchers hitting against him like Fassero did. Felix Hernandez's best season so far sees him at an ERA+ of 138 this year. So, Halladay's 10-year average is pretty close to that. Also, look at Halladay's innings totals. For excellence over the long-term you won't find much better.



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