The Mariners’ Felix Gamble: Did It Work?


Controversial called third strikes to Nick Punto notwithstanding, that was one hell of a pitching match-up last night. Jeff Samardzija was excellent but was out-dueled by Felix Hernandez, who made the potent A’s offense look like the anemic Cubs from which the Shark recently escaped.

It was playoff baseball before the All-Star break and it was electrifying and frustrating and held all the highs and lows that make us love this beautiful game. Even in the excruciating pain of a close loss that ended on a poor call with the tying run 90 feet away, it was a fantastic and tense experience. But should this great pitchers’ duel even have happened?

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Felix was originally set to pitch against the Twins on Thursday evening, but the Mariners’ management sent down Taijuan Walker and had Tom Wilhelmsen “start” against Minnesota instead, punting and eventually losing a game pitched only by the Mariner bullpen. Is this as silly as a manager’s hunch or is it the outcome of some well calculated game theory?

An argument can be made that this is a decent strategy. The Twins aren’t the same caliber of team as the A’s, so if running out six pitchers is a thing you were going to do, it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to try that against Oakland. With the Twins, you have a chance to pull it off. The added win expectancy of Felix against Samardzija and the A’s makes the gamble even more sensible, especially when a win against a division leading rival has a certain marginal benefit above beating the team at the bottom of the AL Central.

But that doesn’t completely bear out. First, a win is a win and it looks the same at the end of the year. In a lot of ways, having Felix mow down the Twins and giving a lesser starter a chance against the A’s is the better choice. Take the victory you can (almost) count on and bank it against the Minnesota. Especially with a team offense that’s easy to see being shut down by a good pitcher like Samardzija; remembering that Felix almost always gives the M’s the best chance to win but that they don’t always do their part. And beating the A’s doesn’t help Seattle catch the Angels or put them in a better place relative to the other wild card chasers in the league.

At this point, regardless of the intent or rationale of the move, we know the end result. The Mariners bullpen did not silence the Twins for nine innings on Thursday, but Felix did end up pitching eight stellar innings against the A’s. Is that really what the Seattle management was trying to accomplish? I think it was a partial victory, since they ended up winning the bigger of the two games at home, on a Friday night, in front of an electrified crowd and against the best team in baseball. It was a narrative building win, and it certainly will help sell the competitiveness of the team to the fan base if they add a piece before the deadline. Seattle doesn’t end up with a better record overall, but they do end up a half game closer to the top of the AL West and that could be a big deal down the line.

It’s a long season, and it’s a game of inches. A pitch that was high and inside to Nick Punto could very well be an even bigger deal come September.