I know exactly what some of you are thinking right now. And you're probably right. It's way too early in Felix Hernandez's career to draw comparisons to a guy like Nolan Ryan, especially when Hernandez is only 22 years old, and Ryan pitched until he was in his 40's. But, once I started looking at their similarities, I decided to just go with it.
Just to clarify things, when I draw comparisons between players, I'm not saying that one player is going to duplicate the career of another player. A comparison is just an attempt to find players that have performed similarly at certain ages, and then hopefully put a rough estimate on expectations for the younger player. When creating comparisons, I always hope that the reader will keep in mind the idea that the purpose is to draw similarities between 2 players progression curves, and not to say that one player will match or exceed another player's career accomplishments. This seems to be lost on some people, so maybe one day I'll type up a post dedicated solely to progression curves and player comparisons.
Anyways, I generally like to find 3 to 5 comparisons for a player before I begin to determine any kind of projections, but to make things simple I try to refine the list until I have a solitary comparable player that best describes the potential of that prospect. In this case, there are very few pitchers that have demonstrated the same skill level as Hernandez, so we'll have to work with what we've got. And what we've got is Nolan Ryan.
It's a huge leap to say that any young pitcher is like Nolan Ryan, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. I don't really want to go too far with this, but of all the pitchers out there, I think Hernandez comes closest to Ryan, and here's why.
While the numbers are a little bit different - particularly the BB/9 stats and GB% - the general trend is amazingly similar. It's almost as if the numbers Hernandez put up over the last 4 years are just extensions of what Nolan Ryan would have put up previous to his numbers from the age of 21 to 24 years old. To make things a little clearer, here's a graphical representation of what Hernandez has done versus what Ryan did in his early 20's. The first graph displays their K/9 and BB/9 rates, while the second graph shows their WHIP and ERA.
Ryan's walk rate was substantially higher than what we've seen from Hernandez, but once again, the general trend is obvious. Both pitchers had extremely elevated K/9 rates for their age, solid to excellent ground ball rates, and a WHIP that floated around the 1.50 range.
I don't think Hernandez will be able to match Ryan's strike out totals over the course of his career, but he has displayed much better control and a better tendency to keep the ball on the ground. Those 2 skills should help make up the difference in strike outs, and if Hernandez can stay healthy, his career should be very exciting to watch even into his mid to late 30's. Of all the pitching prospects I've looked at, Hernandez probably has the absolute best skill set out of any pitcher in the last 20 years, and if I had to pick one pitcher under the age of 24 with the best chance of being in the Hall of Fame, it would be Hernandez. I know I'm not saying anything about him that hasn't already been said, but when I started looking at him compared to Ryan, there was nothing else I could say.