Every year, I take on the daunting task of going through every single team and creating a mini-database of stats and one-liner (and often only semi-informed) analysis. I use these to write rather arduous previews of each team every spring and attempt to predict how the teams will finish. I’m often horribly wrong, but the exercise is fun and allows me to learn more about each player and team in baseball, right down to the last player on a 40-man roster.
While accumulating information on each player, I often stumble upon an interesting tidbit of information that I was previously unaware of that may make me view a player in a much different light than I had previously. This happened to me the other day when putting together the Mariners database and I noticed that ace pitcher Felix Hernandez has thrown at least 190 innings in every full season he’s played except his first; when he threw 84.1 innings as a 19-year-old rookie. In the last three seasons, Hernandez has thrown at least 230 innings. It would appear as though he is not only one of the very best pitchers in baseball in terms of skill and talent, but he’s also shaping up to be one of the most durable.
Because of how early Hernandez’s Major League career got underway, he has already pitched six-and-a-half seasons and will not have his 26th birthday until April 8th. In total, he has thrown 1388.1 innings in his young career. All of this got me thinking: how many other pitchers have accumulated the number of innings pitched that Hernandez has so early in their life?
I took to Baseball Reference’s Play Index Tool to find the answer to my question, and it turns out the answer is not many.
In fact, since 1980, only two pitchers have accumulated more innings than Hernandez before their age 26 season: Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden. Both Valenzuela and Gooden started their careers a year or so younger than Hernandez was when he started his and so their totals are significantly higher at over 1500 innings each. Joining Hernandez in the top five, however are more comparable pitchers in Bret Saberhagen and Mike Witt.
Most people in the baseball community when talking about Hernandez’s relative value, site the fact that he is still so young; that he has several more years left in his prime and should therefore be considered on a different, more elite, playing field than many of his contemporaries. Pitchers such as Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum were all several years older than Hernandez by the time they started netting significant Major League innings, thus rendering him far more valuable.
But let’s go back to that list of pitchers who logged significant innings very early in their life. Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, and Mike Witt. All four started their careers off with a bang and all of them ended rather precariously. Will Hernandez falter in much the same way?
After a late-season cameo pitching out of the bullpen for the Dodgers late in the 1980 season, Valenzuela burst on to the scene in the strike-shortened 1981 season and posted a 2.48 ERA winning both the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award while helping the Dodgers win their first World Series title since 1965. Valenzuela would go on to screwball his way to five more outstanding seasons before the sheer amount of innings he threw caught up to him. His slide started in 1987 when he posted a career-worst 3.98 ERA and he was never the same thereafter, battling injuries and ineffectiveness until he retired, mercifully, after the 1996 season. What looked like a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, ended up falling short.
Gooden, the second pitcher on our list, was similarly hyped, breaking into the Majors on a full-time basis in 1984 at age 19. He stormed his way to an 8.6 fWAR season, followed by a 9.0 fWAR season at age 20 in 1985. No pitcher in the history of the game made such an impact on his team at such a young age. Gooden looked well on his way to a legendary Hall of Fame career and although he did have several more very good years, injuries kept him from sustaining his great start. He didn’t pitch over 200 innings after his age 28 season and retired after his age 35 season in 2000; a year in which he pitched with three different teams and was below-replacement-level.
To be fair, both Valenzuela and Gooden had a lot more innings under their belt by the time they turned 26 than Hernandez will, but the other two pitchers in the top five did not.
Bret Saberhagen experienced his breakout year in 1985 as a 21-year-old with Kansas City. That year, while pitching in 235.1 innings, he posted a 2.87 ERA and a 6.8 fWAR on route to capturing the AL Cy Young Award. He’d win a second Cy Young Award in 1989 after throwing 262.1 innings and accumulating an 8.4 fWAR at the age of 25. In his first six seasons, culminating in 1989, Saberhagen had thrown 200 or more innings and accumulated an fWAR of 5.0 or higher four times. He failed to reach 200 innings ever again and topped 5.0 fWAR only twice more while pitching with the Royals, Mets, Rockies and Red Sox.
The final pitcher on the list, Mike Witt, came up to the Majors as a precocious 20-year-old with the California Angels in 1981 and threw the eleventh perfect game in baseball history on the final day of the 1984 season at Arlington Stadium against the Rangers. From 1984 through 1986, Witt averaged over 250 innings per year and was considered one of the best starters in the AL, finishing third in Cy Young voting in 1986. In the middle of his 1987 season, however, the 6’7” Witt suddenly lost his trademark electric stuff at the age of 26. He would never regain it. He never again had an ERA under 4.00 and was out of the game at age 32.
So what does this mean for Felix Hernandez, who sits smack in the middle of a list of pitchers who saw their best days before their supposed “prime” years? All but Witt won a Cy Young Award before they turned 25 and all were considered inning-eating workhorses at a very young age. Is it possible that Hernandez may start to decline at a rate more comparable to pitchers in their early-to-mid thirties, similar to the way the other four pitchers did? Looking outside of the top five young innings eaters, you see names like Greg Maddux and C.C. Sabathia, but neither pitcher accumulated close to the innings Hernandez has by his age.
If I was the Seattle Mariners, I would have considered trading Hernandez, rather than Michael Pineda this winter.