We’re closing in on the All-Star break, and thanks to the masterful pitching performances by the pair of Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, the Mariners find themselves breathing down the necks of the Texas Rangers for the AL West title.
It’s the dynamic duo, the one-two punch, the King and the Prince, whatever you want to call them, but Felix Hernandez has unquestionably been the superior of the two. Pineda even looks up to King Felix, taking a page of Felix’s playbook and even cocking his cap at a slight angle.
With that in mind, you might say that it’s blasphemy that the disciple could have surpassed the master so early in his career. Is Pineda a legitimate challenger for King Felix’s throne?
The Case for Michael Pineda
The argument for Pineda as the superior pitcher comes down to stats, really. Felix Hernandez has been a solid pitcher this year, without a doubt. But somewhat surprisingly, his numbers are a lot closer to the 3.45 ERA in 2008 than his Cy Young performance last year.
So while Michael Pineda is 10th in baseball with his 2.64 ERA, Felix doesn’t even crack the top 40. Pineda has also been able to keep opposing batters off base, with a 1.026 WHIP compared to Felix’s 1.209.
Part of that is giving up fewer hits. Felix gives up more than a hit more per nine innings, but Pineda has also given up fewer walks, with 11 less in about 25 fewer innings.
According to Fangraphs, a website devoted to recording the statistics and sabermetrics of baseball, Felix’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 2.3, while Pineda’s WAR is 2.7 (essentially this means Pineda is a bit better).
Then there’s the rookie factor. Obviously, this is Pineda’s first season in the majors, and often it takes prospects a while to figure out the nuances of pitching in the majors and facing MLB caliber hitters.
Pineda has clearly taken it in stride, demonstrated by his unshakable confidence on the mound, and if opposing offenses could figure him out, they would have done it a long time ago.
Pineda’s main concern coming into the season was facing left-handed batters. This season, he’s held righties to an infinitesimal .188 batting average and lefties to a slightly higher .222 average.
To be quite honest, I think Pineda would have had a legitimate shot at the AL Cy Young this year had his arm not been protected like it has been this season.
Defending King Felix
We can take this comparison two ways. If we are comparing Felix and Pineda for this season, I’d put Pineda ahead by a small margin.
On the other hand, Pineda’s repertoire is still developing. He can only throw two pitches with consistency, and his third is a below-league average changeup.
That isn’t to discount his “diabolical” slider, but Pineda lacks the ability to get groundball outs. In fact, Pineda’s groundball to flyball ratio stands at .53, while Felix’s is .95. It’s common knowledge that you want to try to induce groundballs, and Felix is far better at this.
At some point Pineda will have to gear his pitching towards increasing groundballs.
We can also compare Felix’s rookie season to Pineda’s current rookie season and find that both had about the same ERA; 2.67 vs. 2.64 in about the same innings pitched.
You could say those numbers are more impressive for Felix since he was just 19 as a rookie, in addition to the fact that Pineda had more time in the minors before being called up. While Felix had his struggles in the following three season, it’s encouraging to see that even if Pineda follows a similar pattern, he can absolutely be better than he is this season.
It’s difficult to deny that Pineda has had a better season in 2011 than King Felix. However, we have to take this in perspective and realize that Felix has won a Cy Young while Pineda is only halfway through his first season.
Perhaps Pineda could indeed surpass Felix in the future, but for now, Felix is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Pineda strives to reach that pinnacle, but there’s no doubt that he has the talent to get there.