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10 Thoughts Right Now About Felix Hernandez

Updated on August 5, 2018
Felix Hernandez is having the worst season of his long career. He has definitely aged, but is he done?
Felix Hernandez is having the worst season of his long career. He has definitely aged, but is he done?

One (1)

I knew the time would eventually come when Seattle Mariners star pitcher Felix Hernandez would decline into an old, washed up pitcher. I find it a bit sad to see this reality come alive clear as day in 2018, but I also considered the reality of its arrival for years and it didn't come as much of a surprise once I realized this year that it had arrived.

Great baseball pitchers never stay great for more than a few years. Every good pitcher loses effectiveness in various ways as they age, and eventually they're no longer good.

The bittersweet reality of watching a dominant Felix Hernandez in the late 2000's always sat in the back of my mind: Eventually the Mariners ace would no longer be an effective pitcher, let alone a great one.

That time has come, and something has got to change.

Year
Age
Tm
W
L
ERA
GS
IP
H
HR
BB
SO
FIP
HR9
BB9
SO9
2005
19
SEA
4
4
2.67
12
84.1
61
5
23
77
2.85
0.5
2.5
8.2
2006
20
SEA
12
14
4.52
31
191
195
23
60
176
3.91
1.1
2.8
8.3
2007
21
SEA
14
7
3.92
30
190.1
209
20
53
165
3.75
0.9
2.5
7.8
2008
22
SEA
9
11
3.45
31
200.2
198
17
80
175
3.80
0.8
3.6
7.8
2009
23
SEA
19
5
2.49
34
238.2
200
15
71
217
3.09
0.6
2.7
8.2
2010
24
SEA
13
12
2.27
34
249.2
194
17
70
232
3.04
0.6
2.5
8.4
2011
25
SEA
14
14
3.47
33
233.2
218
19
67
222
3.13
0.7
2.6
8.6
2012
26
SEA
13
9
3.06
33
232
209
14
56
223
2.84
0.5
2.2
8.7
2013
27
SEA
12
10
3.04
31
204.1
185
15
46
216
2.61
0.7
2.0
9.5
2014
28
SEA
15
6
2.14
34
236
170
16
46
248
2.56
0.6
1.8
9.5
2015
29
SEA
18
9
3.53
31
201.2
180
23
58
191
3.72
1.0
2.6
8.5
2016
30
SEA
11
8
3.82
25
153.1
138
19
65
122
4.63
1.1
3.8
7.2
2017
31
SEA
6
5
4.36
16
86.2
86
17
26
78
5.02
1.8
2.7
8.1
2018
32
SEA
8
9
5.49
22
118
124
17
42
97
4.72
1.3
3.2
7.4
Felix Hernandez's career stats. His recent period of decline is in bold.

Two (2)

To some extent, I felt like Felix's career decline had already arrived. Felix's previous two seasons:

2016: Injured during the year, 25 starts, 11-8 record, 3.82 ERA, only 153.1 innings, a worrisome 3.8 walks per 9IP (BB/9), a pedestrian 7.2 strikeouts per 9IP (K/9), good for a 4.63 FIP (estimated fielding independent ERA).

2017: Injured even more during the year, 16 starts, 6-5 record, an even worse 4.36 ERA, only 86.2 innings, a 5.02 FIP, a better 2.7 BB/9, a slightly better 8.1 K/9, but a worrisome 1.8 home runs per 9... 17 HR in 86.2 IP. To compare, in his 2010 Cy Young season he gave up 17 HR... in 249.2 innings.

That the career decline became so obvious in 2018 is sad, but the cracks in the dam began showing as far back as 2016.

Three (3)

Save for a brief DL stint due to a reported back issue, Felix Hernandez has been healthy and available to pitch all season long, and a season of mostly disappointing results certainly aren't the product of rust.

Reportedly, Felix has been pitching through damage to his elbow as far back as 2013, back when he signed a 7 year, $135 million contract extension with the Seattle Mariners. The issue led to an option in the contract that allowed the team to extend the contract one additional season for a relatively light $1 million if Felix ever had to undergo elbow surgery during the life of the contract.

But Felix's elbow has never required any missed time due to injury. Felix previously re-invented himself prior to his dominant period (2009-2014), as his fastball velocity diminished from 95+ mph to the low 90's. Felix improved his ability to locate his pitches, refined his use of a 2-seam fastball into what became his trademark change-up (The "Cambio"), and mixed his use of his curveball with a wicked slider. It was a key to his becoming a top Major League pitcher.

Felix never missed substantial time with arm trouble. And he certainly has had no known arm trouble this season.

But in 22 starts this season, Felix has only topped 100 pitches five times, all before mid-June. Only six of those starts were true quality starts. Frequently, he's allowed enough hits and free passes that Mariners manager Scott Servais has given him the hook well before he reaches pitch 100.

Four (4)

Felix Hernandez has pitched this season with one peculiar split: He struggles badly his 1st time through the batting order, has been very effective the 2nd time through, only to once again (like many pitchers) fall apart his 3rd time through.

Time Thru Order
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
BB%
K%
1st
0.303
0.360
0.567
0.928
7.6%
18.7%
2nd
0.230
0.285
0.337
0.622
5.6%
19.0%
3rd
0.287
0.405
0.475
0.880
12.3%
18.0%


The decline during his 3rd pass through the order makes sense, since pretty much every pitcher tires later in the game and loses effectiveness.

But fresh and ready to go, he starts the game even worse than that, requiring one trip through the batting order to find his groove.

More telling are his stats by number of pitches he's thrown in a given start:

Pitches Thrown
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
BB%
K%
Pitches 1-25
0.341
0.393
0.659
1.052
7.1%
15.6%
Pitches 26-50
0.231
0.302
0.336
0.638
8.1%
20.1%
Pitches 51-75
0.233
0.299
0.362
0.661
6.2%
20.8%
Pitches 76-100
0.247
0.358
0.432
0.790
11.6%
17.9%

Basically, Felix Hernandez starts every game getting hit like a punching bag, does a lot better after having thrown about 20-30 pitches... then tires as most pitchers do and falls apart after about 75 pitches.

Five (5)

Given Felix's tendency to start badly while fresh, this indicates moving him to the bullpen may not be a great idea.

Do you really want Felix throwing all his pitches during a situation (the first 9 batters, the first 25 pitches) where he pitches his worst?

If Felix is going to continue his career sans a complete re-invention, he and the Mariners need to fix his problems as a starter rather than asking him to accept a bullpen role.

Felix Hernandez being moved to the bullpen would not only upset him, but (more importantly) probably do the opposite of fix the problem.

Six (6)

Though Felix may never be his old, dominant, nasty pitching self, he can certainly make a key adjustment to allow himself to stick around a few more years.

I offer two key examples:

Freddy Garcia was Felix Hernandez's idol, and may be a role model for Felix in other ways....
Freddy Garcia was Felix Hernandez's idol, and may be a role model for Felix in other ways....

Felix grew up idolizing fellow Venezuelan star pitcher Freddy Garcia, and Freddy may provide a solid template for how Felix can extend his career as an effective pitcher.

Though Freddy had a much different late career than Felix (as Freddy left the Seattle Mariners and bounced between multiple teams, eventually adopting a swingman starter/relief role), he did reinvent himself:

  • Going from a zone-pounder with nasty stuff, to working the edges of the strike zone with breaking balls
  • Only pounding the zone after falling behind in the count
  • Generally looking for weak contact rather than trying to blow away hitters.

Freddy Garcia did deal with arm trouble later in his career as his once hot fastball declined from 91-93 mph to 86-89 mph. But thanks to a reinvented approach, Freddy Garcia's walk rate plummeted, and putting more balls in play helped him work deeper into games more quickly, hits or runs be damned.

A Major League career that might have typically ended for Freddy Garcia by the late 2000's extended into 2012. Plus, Garcia continued pitching in Mexico for several years after his final MLB game.

Internet darling and ageless wonder Bartolo Colon is also a great example of how Felix Hernandez could re-define his pitching skills and extend his career.
Internet darling and ageless wonder Bartolo Colon is also a great example of how Felix Hernandez could re-define his pitching skills and extend his career.

Another once-great pitcher who changed into a contact pitcher following a steep decline: Bartolo Colon.

Colon for over a decade dominated opponents as a crafty fastball-centered pitcher, even as his 92-95 mph fastball slowly eroded into an 87-90 mph fastball. He induced swinging strikes at fastballs on the pitcher-friendly parts of the zone.

As Bartolo aged and lost his dominance, as his fastball became a lot more hittable, he counter-intuitively pounded the zone a lot more. This compelled freer-swinging hitters to put the ball in play a lot more quickly, and while many of those balls were hit hard, hitters still turn roughly 70% of their batted balls into outs. All that happened is that Bartolo walked far fewer hitters, and worked through starts with far fewer pitches. He had become a marginal but durable, bullpen-saving starting pitcher.

In fact, the only reason Bartolo Colon hasn't retired yet is because he wants to pass Dennis Martinez on the all-time Latin American pitcher list for MLB career wins before retiring. As of this publication date, Martinez and Colon are tied at the top with 245 career wins. To this day, Bartolo can find many teams willing to let him pitch every 5 days.

Even if Felix Hernandez's stuff is completely gone (which many would argue it's not by any means), and he can never be the great pitcher he once was... it's entirely possible for Felix to become a different kind of pitcher, one that has a demonstrated track record of surviving in the Major Leagues well into old age.

Felix, historically a movement-driven pitcher built around inducing swinging strikes, could commit to pounding the strike zone more heavily and doing everything in his power not to ever issue any walks. His trademark Cambio (a changeup that's basically a falling two-seam fastball), his still-nasty curveball, and his troublesome but still useful sinker can still be effective in a 0-ball, 1-ball or even 2-ball count by inducing bad swings.

But once Felix reaches 2-ball and 3-ball counts, he can take a page from Bartolo Colon and his childhood hero Freddy Garcia by deciding to pound the zone and look for in-play contact. Felix may be surprised at how many more outs he generates than hard-hit balls... even if the zone-pounders are one of his diminished four-seam fastballs.

Felix may even benefit starting batters off by looking for 1st or 2nd pitch contact, especially his 1st time through the order. If hitters are already hitting Felix hard the 1st time around (which they are: Hitters vs Felix have a .928 OPS the 1st time through the order, as of this publication date), he has little to lose by just piping pitches off the bat and trying to get those plate appearances over as quickly as possible, hits and runs be damned.

Felix Hernandez's stubborn persistence in doing things his way was a big part of what made him great. And it may also be his undoing.
Felix Hernandez's stubborn persistence in doing things his way was a big part of what made him great. And it may also be his undoing.

Seven (7)

Above point said, Felix reportedly is notoriously stubborn and, even when coaches are quick to point out improvements and adjustments he needs to make, he sticks to what he knows best. Changes to his approach often come at a pace more glacial and tectonic than adaptable and quick.

Even now, as his performance has slid, Felix has been slow to make substantial adjustments. Asking him to completely overhaul his approach not only isn't likely in-season, but would be very difficult to implement over an offseason. The above approach would ask him to become a completely different pitcher than he's been.

Does a guy who powered his way from poverty in Venezuela to greatness in Major League Baseball due in no small part to being hard-headed... find the humility to abandon parts of his fostered identity as a pitcher to become a different pitcher? Never say never, but given who we're talking about here it may not happen.

The end of Felix Hernandez's career could be a product of the very attitude that propelled him to greatness in the first place. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Eight (8)

Humility from Felix may be possible, especially as the struggles begin to get to him.

Felix was reportedly crushed after his disastrous July 28 start, where he gave up 7 runs and didn't survive the 3rd inning.

According to Mariners reporter Brad Adam, Felix was as low as he'd ever been following a recent disastrous outing
According to Mariners reporter Brad Adam, Felix was as low as he'd ever been following a recent disastrous outing | Source

Though Felix is slow to change, he also has never been hit in the face with his own career mortality as hard as this moment in a season full of disappointment.

Life moments like this have a way of compelling epiphanies, and motivating change. Felix has never experienced mortality like this. If he wants to pitch badly enough, it could inspire change like never before.

Name
Age
W
L
ERA
G
GS
CG
IP
H
FIP
HR9
BB9
SO9
Mike Leake
30
8
7
4.16
22
22
0
134
145
4.35
1.1
1.9
5.4
Marco Gonzales
26
12
6
3.46
22
22
1
132.2
128
3.44
0.9
1.7
8.0
James Paxton
29
9
4
3.49
21
21
2
126.1
100
3.04
1.1
2.4
11.6
Felix Hernandez
32
8
9
5.49
22
22
0
118
124
4.72
1.3
3.2
7.4
Wade LeBlanc
33
6
2
3.95
22
17
0
107
105
4.32
1.4
1.9
7.1
Despite Felix Hernandez's struggles, the Seattle Mariners have a great starting rotation. His teammates have stepped up over the years.

Nine (9)

Incidentally, the Seattle Mariners have quietly moved on from Felix being their horse.

  • James Paxton has emerged as their de facto ace.
  • Acquisition Marco Gonzales rebounded strong from an awful 2017 to become an effective starter.
  • Wade LeBlanc has blossomed into a solid starter.
  • Durable Mike Leake has become a solid addition.

Even if Felix Hernandez is a diminished shell of himself, the current Seattle Mariners really only need a 5th starter at this point. If that's all Felix is now, that's perfectly fine for the Mariners.

Ten (10)

I don't think Felix Hernandez is close to done. He'll never be the dominant pitcher he was during 2009-2014, but Felix can easily alter his approach and still be an effective pitcher.

Whether or not he does so and can become a Comeback Player of the Year in 2019 may be a key to whether or not he is a Hall of Fame candidate. Pitchers today can't amass 300 wins given they make fewer starts per season than their ancestors, but 200+ wins over a long, mostly effective career with several seasons of dominance will probably be the Hall of Fame benchmark for this generation. Felix Hernandez right now is on the fence of such candidacy, not to mention at a crossroads in his long and storied career.

Felix Hernandez is no longer great. But is he done? Let's find out.

All data courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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    • Meraf Geberehiwot profile image

      Meraf Geberehiwot 

      6 weeks ago

      Long live the King!!! Sadly I think he's finished after this season, at least as a rotation starter. Dream outcome for me is the Mariners get the 2nd wild card spot, Felix gets the start (I know I'm dreaming) and turns in a vintage performance against the Yankees to end the longest playoff drought in professional sports (I know the Wild Card game is technically the post season but I think we all know it's a BS play-in game so it shouldn't count).

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