Monday, June 10, 2013

Of Kings and Men

LeBron James was called King James long before he won an NBA title.  It got to be a joke.  Well, nobody's laughing now.  He's won one, and is now 3 wins away from another -- although, in Game 1, we saw the old LeBron, vanishing in the 4th quarter.

Henrik Lundqvist is called King Henrik.  He's never played in a Stanley Cup Finals.  In the biggest game he's ever played, Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, he got beat by Adam Henrique, a rookie.  He'd blown it in other big games.  But at least he's gotten into some big games.

Felix Hernandez is called King Felix.  He's never even been in a big game.  Only once since he arrived in the majors, all with the Seattle Mariners, has his team even finished within 6 games of a Playoff berth.  He's never pitched with a Playoff berth on the line, or even within view.  Yet people call him "King."

Having just turned 27, he's got a career record of 105-80, for a winning percentage of .568.  That's not bad,  but it ranks 28th among active pitchers (minimum of 1,000 innings pitched), behind guys like Jered Weaver (the active leader at .660), CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Johan Santana, Adam Wainwright, Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Yovani Gallardo, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Zambrano, Bartolo Colon, John Lackey and Josh Beckett.

He's got a career ERA+ of 128.  Very good, but it ranks 6th among active pitchers, behind Mariano Rivera (the active leader with a whopping 206), Clayton Kershaw, Santana, Wainwright, Halladay and Oswalt.

He's got a career WHIP of 1.203.  Pretty good, but it ranks 14th among active pitchers, behind pitchers such as Rivera (the active leader at exactly 1.000), Santana, Kershaw, Wainwright, Halladay, Weaver, Oswalt and Lee.

He's won a Cy Young Award.  You know who else has won Cy Young Awards? Dean Chance, Mike McCormick, Steve Stone, Pete Vuckovich, LaMarr Hoyt, John Denny, Mark Davis, Brandon Webb.  If you're thinking that those guys aren't exactly all-time greats, you're right.  You know who never won a Cy Young Award -- even though they were eligible for it, from 1956 onward? Juan Marichal, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton, Jack Morris, Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina.  (I'm not even going to count Mariano, because it's harder for a reliever to win it.)

He's pitched 2 no-hitters.  You know who else has 2 no-hitters? Johnny Vander Meer, Jim Tobin, Virgil Trucks, Carl Erskine, Sam Jones (the 1950s-60 NLer, not the 1910s-20s ALer), the aforementioned Dean Chance, Bill Stoneman, Don Wilson, Ken Holtzman, Steve Busby, Bob Forsch, Mark Buehrle.  Some good pitchers there, but can any of them be called "King"? You know who never threw a no-hitter? Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, Whitey Ford, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux.  Not to mention the entire San Diego Padre and New York Met franchises.  (Don't tell me Santana pitched one.  He allowed a hit, the umpire just didn't call it right.)

One of his no-hitters was a perfect game.  You know who else has pitched perfect games? Charlie Robertson, Don Larsen, Len Barker, Mike Witt and Dallas Braden.

Now, it may be true that Felix Hernandez is a good example of the old argument, "What if Derek Jeter had been drafted by the Kansas City Royals?" In other words, how much of a winner would a great player be on a lousy team? Maybe Felix would have won Pennants on another team.  Look at Barry Zito: Pitched great for Oakland, never won a Pennant; went across the Bay, signed with San Francisco, stunk it up, but got a ring, then got another one to which he actually did make some contribution.

But if you want the clincher as to why Felix Hernandez should not be called "King," look at yesterday's series finale between his Mariners and the Yankees.

Hernandez was pitching.  At home.  In a pitcher's park.  With thousands of people (43,389, a great crowd by Seattle standards) cheering him on and booing the Yankees.

And he didn't win.  Not only that, he got matched by the other starter.

David Phelps.

Now, someday, Phelps might be thought of as one of the best pitchers in baseball.  As of now, that is not the case.

Felix Hernandez had so much in his favor, and he couldn't outpitch David Phelps.

Baseball's Mike Kelly and Carl Hubbell.  Basketball's LeBron James.  Hockey's Frank Clancy.  Golf's Arnold Palmer.  Track's Carl Lewis.  Soccer's Pele, Colin Bell, Charlie George, Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Eric Cantona, Oliver Kahn and Thierry Henry.  All of these men were called "King," and all had some justification.  (Former Yankee Jim Leyritz was also called "King," and unlike Henrik Lundqvist thus far, won titles.  But let's not kid ourselves.)

Felix Hernandez? "King," my ass.

*

Hernandez pitched 7 innings yesterday, allowing 1 run on 5 hits and 2 walks, striking out 7.  Phelps pitched 6, allowing 1 run on 3 hits and 3 walks, striking out 6.  Neither was involved in the decision.

It was the former Mariner star, Ichiro Suzuki, who set the result in motion by drawing a walk to lead off the top of the 9th.  Jayson Nix sacrificed him to 2nd.  But Reid Brignac flew to left, so that was 2 outs.

Up came Chris Stewart.  A rather unlikely hero.  Well, he decided to heck with the "unlikely" part, and singled to left, and Ichiro came around to score.

Things could well have gone bad to worse, as the M's brought in former Met hero turned fans' punching bag Oliver Perez.  He allowed a single to Brett Gardner and walked Robinson Cano to load the bases.  He couldn't find the plate with a GPS.

But he was facing Mark Teixeira, who, so often, is an all-or-nothing hitter.  Teix swung and missed at what should have been ball 4 and a run-forcing walk.

But the Yankees did get the lead, putting David Robertson, who pitched the 8th, in position to get the win.  (Boone Logan somehow pitched a perfect 7th.) But Mariano was a little shaky.  He allowed a leadoff single to Kyle Seager, but got Kendrys Morales to ground into a double play, before walking Raul Ibanez, the closest thing last year's Yankees had to a postseason hero.

Another blast from the Flushing past came up to pinch-hit: Endy Chavez.  He singled Ibanez over to 2nd.  Suddenly, that double play loomed very large.

Mo got Michael Saunders to fly out to end it.

Yankees 2, Mariners 1.  WP: Robertson (4-1).  SV: Rivera (23).  LP: Yoervis Medina (0-1).

The Yankees have today off, and head down the Pacific Coast to play a 3-game series against the Oakland Athletics, starting tomorrow night.

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