Rieber: Yankees should have used King Felix's model

Felix Hernandez is hugged by a teammate after

Felix Hernandez is hugged by a teammate after he pitched a two hit complete game shutout of the Yankees. (June 30, 2010) (Credit: David Pokress )

Anthony Rieber

Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998

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After listening to endless debates about the Joba Rules and the Hughes Rules, we bring you Felix Hernandez of the Mariners.

With King Felix, it's no rules, just right.

Hernandez is 24 years old - the same age as the Yankees' Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain - and is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He makes a heck of a 1-2 punch with Cliff Lee, which is why the Mariners' lousy season is a bit of a tragedy.

Hernandez threw a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout of the Yankees last night, a day after Lee beat the innings limit-encumbered Hughes.

"He was as good as we've seen all year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Hernandez after the Mariners' 7-0 victory.

Hernandez is Exhibit A for how reasonable innings limits - not arbitrary, we-know-it-all, fear-based restrictions - can help young hurlers blossom with their shoulders and elbows still attached.

Hernandez started pitching in the minor leagues at age 17 and made his major-league debut when he was 19. He threw 100 miles per hour and had a golden right arm worth protecting.

The Mariners seem to have done a pretty good job of it - without attempting to reinvent the game as the Yankees and some other clubs have in recent years.

In that age 19 season (2005), Hernandez threw 1721/3 innings in the minors and majors combined. The Mariners objected when Hernandez wanted to pitch for Venezuela in the first World Baseball Classic during the next spring training, and he didn't. They also kept his innings around 200 in his first three full major-league seasons.

Last season, as a 23-year-old, Hernandez went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and 217 strikeouts in 2382/3 innings. He finished second in the AL Cy Young voting to Zack Greinke of the Royals. He may have been the better pitcher.

This year, Hernandez (6-5, 3.03) is at 1212/3 innings. He's on pace for his fifth consecutive season with at least 30 starts. He has been on the disabled list once with an arm issue, when a strained elbow set him down for a month in 2007.

The Mariners have been careful with Hernandez, but they haven't encased him in glass as the Yankees did with Chamberlain.

Having Chamberlain start and pitch three or four innings, as the Yankees did in the second half of 2009, just didn't work. Since he is back in the bullpen and is not the top starter the Yankees envisioned, there's no way the Joba Rules can be judged a success.

It's completely reasonable to wonder if Chamberlain would be another King Felix today if the Yankees had just let him pitch last year. Did the Joba Rules stunt Chamberlain's growth instead of promoting it?

"I think you learn every time you go through it," Girardi said. "Last year we would have liked to skip Joba in the first half, but we got in some situations where people got hurt. And so we had to deal with it the way we did. But you try to learn from every experience and try to do the best you can with it."

That brings us to Hughes. On Tuesday, he was ineffective after skipping a start and sitting for nine days (wait . . . but A.J. Burnett gets to pitch every five days?) The Yankees ignored Hughes' 10-1 record and instead looked at his innings, which they would like to keep at around 175.

At least Hughes is going to start again Sunday and then the Friday before the All-Star break on normal rest. Girardi might even let him throw an inning in the All-Star Game.

He said the rules allow it.

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