Recently, Larry Stone of the Seattle Times suggested the Seattle Mariners needed a healthy, revived Felix Hernandez to have a chance at the postseason in 2018. If that turns out to be the case, Mariner fans are likely to feel an all too familiar sense of dread once October rolls around.
Why my grim outlook? History does not favor pitchers with a combination of Hernandez’s experience (13 seasons) and mileage (2,502 innings). Especially when that pitcher has been trending downwards as Felix has. That is a reality some Mariner fans may have trouble accepting.
The reluctance to dismiss Felix despite his recent misfortune is understandable. After all, long-time fans remember his humble beginnings as a teen phenom, who morphed into a bona fide star and eventually a beloved figure in the Pacific Northwest.
At the tender age of 17, “King Felix” was already wowing scouts and creating a buzz in baseball. Among those dazzled; Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill, who raved about the young flamethrower after first seeing him pitch in 2003.
Two years later, the kid from Valencia, Venezuela was making his big league debut with the Mariners. Baseball evaluators everywhere believed the 19-year-old could be something special.
Boy, was he ever.
A Seattle Icon
It took a few years for him to perfect his craft. But when he did, Hernandez was a dominant force between 2009-14. Here is his stat line from that period and where it placed him among his contemporaries.
For those wondering, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the lone player to fill the top spot when Hernandez did not. In the American League, Felix and former Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander time-shared the “best in the league” label for a decade.
Felix’s individual accomplishments are similarly impressive. A Cy Young award and two runner-up finishes; a pair of ERA titles; six all-star selections; a perfect game.
It is worth noting Hernandez pitched for offensively inept teams for most of his peak years. Perhaps, he would have won multiple Cy Young trophies with better run support.
Regardless of the disadvantages endured, Felix is an eventual Hall of Famer in the eyes of many. That said; I do not believe his on-field success is why Mariner fans are so dedicated to the King.
Felix did not rise to iconic status by simply being a great pitcher. Rather, his relationship with Seattle fans is deeply personal. He made it so with one momentous decision.
Through the years, Seattle has endured the departures of Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson. All were Hall of Fame talents; all left by either their design or the club’s during their prime. Heck, even the city’s NBA team abandoned them.
In 2013, Hernandez signed a seven-year/$175 million extension with the Mariners. He bypassed free agency to remain with the only organization he ever knew and the city that adores him. Such loyalty resonates with any fan base, especially one so bitterly familiar with rejection.
Time Waits For No One
That brings us to the pitcher Stone discusses in his column. The man with a rooting section dubbed the “King’s Court,” who has been anything but supreme lately. Since the start of 2015, injuries and ineffectiveness have incrementally reduced the one-time superstar to league-average.
Going into next year, the focus will not be on Felix’s Hall of Fame credentials. Instead, the issue at hand is whether the one-time ace can once again be a difference-maker for a rotation in dire need of one. After James Paxton and Mike Leake, the starting staff is chock full of uncertainty.
Making matters worse for Felix and the Mariners, history suggests his downward spiral is more likely to continue than reverse.
Since Seattle’s inaugural season in 1977, there have been 65 starters with similar wear and tear (2,200-plus innings) as Felix through 13 seasons. Only nine had a total WAR greater than 10 for the remainder of their career, 19 delivered zero or less WAR.
To be clear, the Mariners should not begin planning a retirement ceremony for their iconic pitcher. However, the demise of others over the last four decades hint at the potential for Felix to fade quickly.
Astute fans will point out Felix Hernandez is not just any pitcher. True, he was an elite performer for nearly a decade. His 52.2 career WAR places him among the best active starters. Many of the players from the previous chart were far less talented than the King.
With that in mind, I identified 14 retired pitchers possessing similar experience (2,200-plus innings) and value (47-57 WAR) to Felix’s through their thirteenth season. The names are not obscure, quite the opposite.
Included below are each pitcher’s WAR and innings through 13 seasons. Also displayed are the number of years played afterwards along with their total WAR for season-14 and beyond. As you will see, player value and career length varied greatly.
Yes, Randy Johnson fell slightly outside my established search window, but I thought Seattle fans would enjoy comparing the two greatest pitchers in franchise history at a similar point in their careers.
It is not hard to see why Johnson has a plaque in Cooperstown. The Big Unit’s productivity during his final nine seasons is better than the career totals of most mortal pitchers.
Other starters did not perform as well as Johnson, but several did provide a reasonable measure of value near the end of their respective careers. Most notably; Roy Halladay, David Cone, Mark Buehrle, Bret Saberhagen, Andy Pettitte, and Kevin Brown.
While an optimist may view the success of these six former stars as cause for hope, the realist in me sees a glaring difference between them and Seattle’s former ace.
Felix had a combined 2.4 WAR during his last two seasons. None of the men previously mentioned bounced back from such a decline after passing the 2,000-inning mark. They either faded away or never struggled to the same degree as Hernandez before hanging up their cleats.
A segment of Felix fans may contend his relative youth (32 in April) means there is still plenty of innings left in the veteran’s right arm. Most of the pitchers mentioned thus far were older than Hernandez by season-13. Fair enough, but the record book tells a different story.
Over the last 40 years, nine pitchers have debuted between ages 19-20 and tossed 2,200-plus innings by season-13. As with the previous comparison, the players delivered mixed production.
|Felix Hernandez (19)|
|Fernando Valenzuela (19)|
|Dwight Gooden (19)|
|Zack Greinke (20)|
|CC Sabathia (20)|
|Greg Maddux (20)|
|Pedro Martinez (20)|
|Bret Saberhagen (20)|
|Bill Gullickson (20)|
The preceding names are an impressive lot. Other than Bill Gullickson, every pitcher won at least one Cy Young award; two received Rookie of the Year honors. Moreover, a pair of Hall of Famers are present.
Greg Maddux proved to be an accomplished pitcher well into his late thirties. Conversely, fellow Cooperstown inductee Pedro Martinez fell off a cliff after supplying 7 WAR in season-14. The right-hander tallied just 1.9 WAR during his final four campaigns.
Despite the overwhelming early success of these noteworthy starters, most were ordinary by the time their fourteenth season arrived. Being relatively young does not necessarily trump a heavy career workload.
That is a lesson Felix fans may soon learn.
So far, comparisons have focused primarily on retired pitchers. Those believing King Felix can reign again may assert he possesses a decided edge over former players. Advancements in training techniques, medicine, and nutrition give today’s professional athletes a better chance of surviving longer.
Undoubtedly, current players are training more effectively, better informed, and recovering faster from injuries than their predecessors. For that reason, I compiled a list of active starters with at least 14 seasons under their belt. The table depicts is their post year-13 information.
Admittedly, the list is shorter than I expected. Certainly, Zack Greinke continues to be superb and C.C. Sabathia is enjoying a second wind as his career nears a close. Otherwise, the results are mixed
Ageless wonder Bartolo Colon helped the Minnesota Twins reach the postseason last year, but only after a turbulent stay with the Atlanta Braves. Edwin Jackson is a baseball nomad playing for 11 teams in 15 seasons. In 2017, he pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.
Okay, reviewing starters with 14-plus seasons did not reveal anything new. What about the King’s contemporaries? Specifically, pitchers debuting around the time he did.
Included below is each pitcher’s combined WAR for the last three seasons. Unfortunately, this comparison further illuminates Hernandez’s recent decline.
With the exception of James Shields, Felix lags behind pitchers he used to lead and the one he formally shared top billing with for nearly a decade — Verlander.
After netting a combined 3.1 WAR for 2014-15, Verlander bounced back in a big way. The 34-year-old was a 2016 Cy Young runner-up. Furthermore, he helped propel the Houston Astros to their first World Series title after joining the club in September.
Some believe Felix should emulate Verlander’s blueprint. I disagree.
While both pitchers have similar career workloads and service time, the Astros ace can still bring the heat. Conversely, Hernandez’s fastball velocity has been dropping for years and is not coming back.
I am not suggesting Felix needs an elite-level fastball to succeed, far from it. However, a 95-MPH fastball eased Verlander’s return to superstar status. The King will have to choose a different path, if one actually exists.
A more practical example of Felix could become is Sabathia. After averaging just 0.3 WAR between 2013-15, the southpaw entered Spring Training two years ago battling for a spot in the New York Yankees’ rotation. Since then, the 37-year-old has been a solid performer for the Bronx Bombers.
Just like Felix, Sabathia is no longer the hard-throwing ace he once was. To counter his diminishing fastball velocity, reinvented himself by adding a cutter to his pitching repertoire and featuring the fastball less often. Now, he relies on guile and experience, plus that cutter, rather than overwhelming hitters with gas.
Sabathia is no longer a staff ace, but remains relevant. So much so, the Yankees recently re-upped the former Cy Young award winner to a one-year/$10 million deal. Maybe, Felix could serve in a similar capacity with the Mariners.
Am I advocating Felix add a cutter like Sabathia or mimic the 17-year veteran’s style? No, every player must follow his own path. But a pitching makeover that meshes with his skill set and psyche is the best way for King to contribute next season and beyond.
Felix landed on the disabled list twice last season due to shoulder issues. The year prior, a calf strain shelved him for nearly two months. Slowly, but surely, the burden of 2,500 innings is taking its toll on the star pitcher’s body. That is why expecting the King to return to his former prominence is unwise.
General manager Jerry Dipoto acknowledged as much to Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle. Referring to Hernandez, the 49-year-old executive told Drayer, “I don’t know how we are going to get him through 33 starts without managing it a little differently than we have previously,”
Dipoto went on to float ideas, such as shortening Felix’s outings and strategically providing additional rest between starts as potential workarounds. The goal; keep the 13-year veteran healthy and available throughout the season.
While Dipoto’s public stance regarding the former superstar is appropriate for fan consumption, the notion of banking on Felix being a significant contributor next year is fraught with risk.
That is why reports the Mariners do not intend to add another proven starter to the rotation are perplexing — at least they are to me. Perhaps, Dipoto is merely waiting for the market to settle before striking.
If the Mariners do not add another quality arm, Stone’s assertion could prove correct. The club’s chances of ending their 16-year postseason drought may could squarely on the balky right shoulder of Hernandez. That is an untenable position for an organization with postseason aspirations.
Am I counting out Felix Hernandez? No, betting against any world class athlete is foolhardy, especially one as fiercely proud and competitive as Felix. Moreover, Sabathia’s success proves the King could be relatively productive once again, assuming he remains healthy and adapts a new approach.
If Felix were capable of consistently performing like a fourth starter and occasionally delivering number-two results, he would be writing a wonderful final chapter to an already exhilarating saga. One that may even include tales of the postseason.
That ending is certainly more uplifting than the one history suggests is awaiting Seattle’s beloved King Felix.