How the Mariners kept King Felix fresh in 2014

 It’s no secret that Felix Hernandez has been among baseball’s elite for the better part of the past decade. The King has now topped 200 strikeouts and 200 innings pitched for the sixth and seventh consecutive year respectfully. He also hasn’t finished a season with an ERA or FIP above 3.50 since 2008. However, it’s also no secret that Hernandez has seen some decline in his performance as the season stretched on to August and September in recent years. With that in mind, the brain trust of the Seattle Mariners determined prior to the start of the 2014 season that they needed to develop a plan that would keep Felix performing at the top of his game from April through September, and hopefully, through October as well.

With the regular season now officially in the books, we can cap what was one of the best Mariner pitching performances of all-time in 2014 by Hernandez. Felix cruised to the American League ERA title with his 2.14 mark, and his 236 innings pitched and 248 strikeouts have him right at the top of the AL Cy Young discussion. Let’s not forget that he made history earlier in the year when he pitched at least seven innings while allowing two earned runs or less for 16 straight starts. Since winning his first Cy Young award in 2010, the still just 28-year old has put together a brilliant past five seasons. Here’s a glance at his production over that time.

Racking up strikeouts and innings pitched comes at the expense of an extraordinary number of pitches thrown, which will eventually take a toll on the pitcher. Since Opening Day 2010, Hernandez has tossed 16,816 pitches with 13,384 of them thrown prior to this past season.

By comparison, Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander entered 2014 with 16,073 pitches thrown, including approximately 750 playoff pitches, before struggling with shoulder inflammation due to fatigue. The 2011 AL Cy Young winner and Most Valuable Player wound up posting his worst season statistically since 2008 with an earned run average a full run higher than his career mark. The Mariners were hoping to avoid Felix incurring this type of breakdown, and for this season, they did.

Prior to the start of the regular season and frequently throughout it’s duration, manager Lloyd McLendon mentioned that he wanted to get his starters an “extra day” whenever he could, especially Felix. At the outset, such a thought appeared more theoretical than practical. Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma started the season on the disabled list and they were joined by James Paxton less than two weeks later. Thanks to the surprise successes of Chris Young and Roenis Elias this season, the M’s were in fact able to maintain some level of consistency in their rotation. Certainly there was opportunity, and reason, for McLendon to sneak Felix into the rotation on his regular four days of rest during a stretch with an off day, but that didn’t happen. Seattle could’ve snuck in a few extra starts out of Felix this year, but they chose not to.

[pullquote]From 2010-2014, no pitcher has thrown more innings than Felix with 1155 2/3. He has the third-best ERA and fifth-best FIP during that time period, and only Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander have accumulated a higher fWAR.[/pullquote]

Of the 34 games Hernandez started this year, 20 of them came on regular rest while 11 came on an extra day of rest. His average of 4.48 days rest between starts in 2014 was approximately three percent higher than the 4.33 average days of rest he incurred in his 2010 Cy Young winning season. The 2013 mark of 4.97 days is skewed due to a 19-day rest period between starts in September. Altering that number to the usual four days of rest would bring the average number of days between starts down to 4.47 — almost identical to his 2014 mark though he made three fewer starts in the previous year.

So, McLendon was able to get Felix a few extra days off here and there, but what about how the right-hander was used during games?

It may be surprising to learn that for all of the King’s success in 2014, he didn’t go the distance once — though he did pitch into the ninth on three occasions. And despite the fact he averaged a tick under 101 pitches per start, he only cleared the 100-pitch mark 18 times this year, or in just over half of his starts. How close did McLendon hold Felix to that 100-pitch mark? Hernandez topped 115 pitches on just six occasions this year compared to a whopping 19 times in 2010 and 15 times in 2011.

It’s important to note however, that Felix was just 24-years-old back in 2010 with barely 900 major league innings on his arm. Compare that to the 28-year old right-hander that entered 2014 with 1824 2/3 innings pitched under his belt. On average most players enter their prime years around age 27, but few begin their major league career at age 19 like Hernandez did.

Not only did the M’s keep Felix on a regular schedule that included extra rest, they kept him on a fairly tight pitch count to preserve his arm. Let’s see how the efforts of McLendon and the coaching staff panned out in the latter portion of the season as compared to what took place under previous regimes over the time period discussed earlier.

Hernandez ended up posting better stats in September of 2014 than in September of 2010, and that includes the eight-run debacle in Toronto on September 23. Felix actually had a similar outing in 2010 when he surrendered seven runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Los Angeles Angels on September 11. He also threw eight innings while yielding one earned run in his last start of the 2010 season compared to being lifted after 5 1/3 shutout innings in his last start of this year — another instance of not having him throw more pitches than necessary in 2014.

It’s interesting to note that by the Fielding Independent Pitching metric, Felix hasn’t actually pitched that bad over his past five Septembers. That could suggest that his ERA has been inflated during that time due to other reasons such as the fatigue of his teammates, for example. Obviously unearned runs due to errors wouldn’t show up against the individual pitcher, but what about runs that were eventually scored on plays that should’ve been outs?

By the time September rolls around and approximately 130 games have been played, it’s common for position players to feel gassed. Which means that line drive up the middle that the shortstop would’ve got to in June may be just out of his reach in September. Or, consider that many teams who are out of the playoff race in September — like the last several editions of the Mariners — will use young players and prospects in regular roles, which in many cases lowers the level of polished defensive skill around the diamond. This is all speculation on my part, but there are several factors that effect a pitcher’s results that extend beyond the control of the pitcher.

The strength of Seattle’s bullpen in 2014 is also worth making note of. Consider this: the Mariners didn’t really need Hernandez to throw eight innings every five days. As evidenced by the first round of the MLB Playoffs, having a cast of relievers that a manager can feel confident in can be crucial. On any given night, McLendon had a choice of excellent relievers, from Danny Farquhar to Tom Wilhelmsen, at his disposal. If Felix, or any starter for that matter, was able to pitch into the sixth or seventh inning, they had done their job and could rest assured that the pen had them covered. The team didn’t have to ask Hernandez to throw 110 pitches every start because they knew that they had the depth to hold a lead or keep the game close. And let’s face it. The first pitch by a reliever is almost always going to be more effective than the 105th pitch thrown by a starter.

Felix himself noted that he made alterations to his training regime throughout the season in an effort to maintain his health. Back in May Hernandez battled a case of the flu that resulted in the right-hander losing considerable weight while posting a couple lacklustre performances; though you wouldn’t know he dealt with any physical ailments as he bounced back quickly. Let’s also not forget the mental side of things too. The club was playing well throughout the year and Felix had his best stuff seemingly every night out, which can do wonders in keeping the right-hander’s spirits up. His confidence appeared to be at an all-time high throughout the year and his swagger was unmatchable on some nights.

What appears to be the formula for keeping Felix Hernandez fresh for the entire season included the combo of his training fixes and how he was managed throughout the season. Maintaining a pitch count near the 100 mark and getting him an extra day of rest every month looks to have paid major dividends, and continuing the use of this type of strategy could be crucial as Felix creeps towards 30 and continues to put miles on his arm.

With a few simple measures and continued growth on Felix’s part, the Mariners were able to foster the best season yet from the Venezuelan star. Whether or not it translates into a second Cy Young award remains to be seen, but perhaps more importantly, the M’s can enter 2015 with a method for maintaining their ace throughout the entire season that they know has worked.

Will it all work out again? There’s only one way to find out.

All statistics provided by FanGraphs and BrooksBaseball.

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Tyler Carmont

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