Félix Hernández finally rejoins the Seattle Mariners rotation this weekend after an extended stay on the injured list. Although Hernández’s presence will have no bearing on his cellar-dwelling team’s season, the veteran’s return likely serves as his last hurrah with the Mariners and Seattle.
You see, Hernández’s contract expires at season’s end with both team and player appearing ready to extinguish a reportedly acrimonious relationship. With his departure a foregone conclusion, now feels like a good time to explore King Félix‘s legacy with the Mariners and the team’s fan base.
Hernández’s stature seems indisputable. For most of his 15-year career, the 33-year-old was the face of the franchise. He earned a Cy Young Award and two runner-up finishes, a pair of ERA titles, and six All-Star selections. Oh yeah, and Félix threw baseball’s last perfect game in 2012.
Despite these achievements, some fans aren’t enamored with the King. Let’s consider possible factors influencing their opinion.
For over a decade, Hernández anchored Seattle’s rotation, while flashing talent worthy of Hall of Famer consideration. Recently though, injuries and ineffectiveness have dashed hopes of Cooperstown immortality.
Félix’s Declining Numbers Since 2014
As you can see, Hernández’s value and performance have plummeted since 2014 when he finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting to Corey Kluber. For this reason, the “what have you done for me lately” crowd is sour on Félix.
Hernández’s inability to regain his elite-level form isn’t exactly breaking news. It’s been a well-covered topic by local newspapers, sports talk radio, and the blogosphere. Nearly two years ago, Prospect Insider suggested history didn’t favor the King.
Unfortunately, we were correct.
Beyond the fans craving instant gratification from athletes and teams, another pack of Mariners faithful believes Hernández hasn’t worked hard enough to stave off Father Time.
Fueling this perception are multiple media reports, plus on-air and podcast conversations suggesting Félix resisted recommendations to mitigate age and workload related regression by altering his training regimen and approach on the mound.
Fair or not, this perception of a lackadaisical attitude towards self-improvement has disillusioned part of the fan base.
The Randy Factor
Compounding matters for Hernández’s legacy, he gets pitted against the fan memories of a beloved player, who last appeared with the Mariners 21 years ago.
Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently identified the four players he’d put on a theoretical Mariners Mount Rushmore – Hernández, Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar Martinez, and Ichiro Suzuki. However, an energetic and vocal subset of fans view Randy Johnson as more deserving than Félix.
The Johnson contingent believes the 6-foot-10 southpaw was significantly better than Hernández. Therefore, more worthy to reside next to Junior, Edgar, and Ichiro on an imaginary Mount Rushmore. It’s an argument more deeply rooted in emotion than fact.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Johnson was an outstanding Mariner, enshrined in Cooperstown and the team’s Hall of Fame. But the numbers simply don’t support a decided edge over Hernández – quite the opposite.
To see what I mean, let’s contrast Randy’s time as a Mariner to a comparable slice of Félix’s career.
Randy appeared in 274 games (266 starts) tossing 1838.1 innings as a Mariner. To capture a relatively even comparison to Félix, I compiled stats from his rookie debut in 2005 through his first two games of the 2014 season. There’s a slight disparity in starts, but the innings count is virtually the same.
Note: The Baseball Reference version of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) listed below doesn’t include 2014.
Comparing Randy and Félix
My takeaway from this comparison is Randy and Félix possessed amazingly similar stat lines during comparable stages in their respective Mariner careers. The separation between these two great players is marginal.
Uneven Playing Field
Some fans believing Johnson was superior to Hernández will suggest the Hall of Famer’s numbers were recorded during the hitter-friendly steroid era, while the King never had to deal with this challenge. True, but two metrics listed above permit us to compare players from different periods and suggest parity exists.
The league standard for adjusted earned run average (ERA+) is always 100. Randy’s ERA+ as a Mariner was 128 meaning he was 28% better than the league-average pitcher during his 10 seasons with Seattle. Meanwhile, Félix’s 127 ERA+ was similarly dominant during our selected time frame.
The virtually equal bWAR of Randy and Félix indicates each delivered the same level of value compared to replacement-level players from their respective eras.
Home Field Disadvantage?
Randy advocates may propose he had it tougher pitching home games in the Kingdome, while Félix called pitcher-friendly Safeco Field home. It’s true Safeco (now T-Mobile Park) has historically favored pitchers. But the stats don’t suggest a home field disadvantage for the Big Unit.
Randy Johnson’s Kingdome/Road Splits (1989-98)
Note: The preceding includes Johnson’s 11 away games with the 1989 Expos and 1998 Astros.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting these splits have major significance. But they do weaken the argument Johnson was hamstrung by the climate-controlled Kingdome.
Conversely, the imbalance between Félix‘s home and road splits are far less noticeable.
Félix Hernández’s Safeco/Road Splits (2005-13)
Realistically, Randy and Félix were elite performers during their best years and could’ve pitched anywhere and flourished doing so.
Big Game Pitcher
There is one area Johnson has an undeniable statistical edge over Hernández – the postseason.
As most fans already know, the Mariners haven’t made a playoff appearance since signing Hernández as an amateur free agent in July 2002 – the year after the team’s record-setting 116-win campaign.
Postseason Numbers For Randy and Félix
Certainly, vivid memories of the Mariners’ heyday in the mid-to-late nineties and Johnson’s heroics during the 1995 postseason present an image of a better big game pitcher than Hernández. Still, Félix proved to be outstanding during the rare occasions his team was playing relevant late-season games.
The following is the King’s record when the Mariners had a winning record in September during his best years (2005-14). Opportunities were few and far between.
Félix Delivered During Meaningful September Action
It’s both amazing and appalling Félix started just 19 September games when Seattle was above the .500 mark during this 10-year period. All of these contests occurred in three seasons – 2007, 2009, and 2014.
A Little Help, Please?
While Randy enjoyed the run support from stars such as Junior, Edgar, Jay Buhner, and Álex Rodríguez, Félix was rarely as fortunate during his best seasons. Between 1989-98, the Mariners ranked eighth in runs scored. Conversely, the club scored the fewest runs in MLB during 2005-13.
Essentially, the King had to reign supreme without much help from his friends. The following illustrates Seattle’s annual average runs scored/game and its MLB ranking, Félix’s ERA, and his most notable achievement each year.
Seattle’s Offense Awful For Most Of Félix’s Prime
|2009||2nd - Cy Young|
|2010||Cy Young Winner|
|2014||2nd - Cy Young|
Not-so-fun fact: Félix Hernández is the only starting pitcher to ever win the Cy Young Award as a member of the team ranked last in runs scored.
Eric Gagne won the 2003 NL Cy Young when the Dodgers had the most unproductive offense in baseball, but Gagne was the team’s closer. Two others came close to this dubious distinction during the last half-century.
Tim Lincecum won the 2008 NL Cy Young when the Giants were the second lowest scoring team. The 1973 Mets were also the second lowest scoring club when Tom Seaver won the NL award. Amazingly, New York made it the World Series that season.
To gain appreciation for just how bad Hernández had it during his peak years, let’s see how many Hall of Famers since MLB expanded in 1961 received worse run support than the King did. We’ll also consider active peers with similar service time.
The following lists the number of times each hurler completed the seventh inning, allowed two-or-less earned runs, the lineup scored two-or-fewer runs, and their team lost.
Note: To facilitate an even comparison, totals were accumulated during each pitcher’s first 303 career starts – Félix’s tally through the 2014 season.
Few All-Time Greats Received Less Help Than King Félix
Clearly, Hernández had historically poor run support. Only Seaver received less than Bert Blyleven and the King. Moreover, Tom Terrific is the lone Hall of Famer whose team lost more times Hernández’s.
Ironically, the pitcher possessing an amazingly similar trajectory to Félix‘s early in their respective careers received far better run support. Justin Verlander had just 24 games matching our criteria during his first 303 games, while the Mariners managed to lose 35 times when Félix started such games.
All Good Things
Perhaps wasted opportunities is the best way to characterize Félix Hernández’s legacy as a Mariner. He was one of the most dominant pitchers of his generation, but previous leadership failed to build a competitive roster around him for over a decade.
Sure, Félix’s production and availability have cratered. But the legion of the frustrated shouldn’t lose sight of the fact he wouldn’t be here to disappoint them, if he left via free agency or forced a trade out of town. Other than Edgar, what other great Mariner stayed with the organization?
In reality, Félix was one of the best players in team history. More than that, he was the face of his franchise for over a decade – a distinction few have truly held with this organization. For these reasons, the King is deserving of every honor the Mariners can hoist upon him.
Even if things go awry for Félix during the twilight of his Mariners career, memories of his recent struggles will eventually fade with time. What fans will likely remember most vividly is the good stuff. In my mind, that’ll be his perfect game.
Naturally, the Mariners provided the King with just one run on that magical day.
My Oh My…