SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 15: Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field on August 15, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Felix Hernandez: From Perfect Prospect to Perfect Game
Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday afternoon, shutting them out 1-0. This was the 23rd perfect game in major league history. Hernandez is a tremendous pitcher of course and he was a tremendous prospect as well, a Grade A prospect who actually lived up to expectations. Let's take a look at what his minor league career was like.
Felix Hernandez was signed by the Seattle Mariners as a free agent from Venezuela in 2002. Considered one of the top pitchers available on the international market that year, he earned a $710,000 bonus.
He made his pro debut in 2003, posting a 2.29 ERA with a 73/24 K/BB in 55 innings for Everett in the Northwest League, followed by two strong starts for Wisconsin in the Low-A Midwest League (1.93 ERA, 18/3 K/BB in 14 innings). Despite his young age (just 17), he was already showing a 95 MPH fastball and a plus curve. I rated him as a Grade B+ entering 2004, writing that "he may be the best pitching prospect in baseball a year from now" and ranking him 30th on my Top 50 pitching prospect list.
Hernandez began 2004 with Inland Empire in the High-A California League and thrived, posting a 2.74 ERA with a 114/26 K/BB in 92 innings. Moved up to the Double-A Texas League in July, he kept winning with a 3.30 ERA in 10 starts and a 58/21 K/BB in 57 innings, outstanding numbers for anyone in the '04 Texas League, let alone an 18-year-old. He was now getting up to 97 MPH, while showing improved control of his curveball, as well as developing a strong changeup. He tinkered with a slider, but the Mariners didn't let him throw it very often, worrying about his health and fearing the pitch could stress his elbow. He was a Grade A prospect and I ranked him as the Number One pitching prospect in the game.
Hernandez began 2005 with Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League and was excellent, posting a 2.24 ERA with a 100/48 K/BB in 88 innings and allowing just 62 hits. Promoted to the majors, he posted a 2.67 ERA with a 77/23 K/BB in 84 innings for the Mariners, with just 61 hits allowed, at age 19. He exceeded rookie qualifications so he didn't show up on 2006 prospect lists, but obviously he would have been a Grade A if he had.
Felix had a solid 2006 season (12-14, 4.52 ERA, but a 3.8 WAR) at age 20, but he began putting everything together in 2007 and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last five years. His worst WAR in a full season has been 3.7 (2008) He's been both dominant and durable, currently standing with a 96-72 record, 129 ERA+, 3.18 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 3.30 xFIP, and a 37.1 WAR in 1568 career innings. And he's still just 26.
We don't know exactly how the rest of his career will go, of course. He's human; he could get hurt or just gradually lose effectiveness. Nevertheless, he's certainly one of the best pitchers of his generation, owning Hall of Fame quality talent. If he lasts long enough, he can get to Cooperstown. We do know that his development as a prospect was textbook perfection. Would that every Grade A pitching prospect could turn out so well.