Mariners Spotlight: One Last Time For The King?

It’s not like Felix Hernandez has a storied history with the Cubs. He’s made all of three starts against them in his career, and Tuesday will be his fourth. Still, any fan of baseball might want to make an extra effort to see King Felix at Wrigley, as you might not see him anywhere after this season.

Hernandez will always be the Sabermetricians Saint, winning a Cy Young in 2010 with just a 13-12 record, as his numbers that matter were simply too good to ignore for the stodgiest of fogies. Perhaps Jacob deGrom‘s last year wouldn’t have happened if the dam hadn’t been broken by Felix before. Certainly it was a landmark when we finally got beyond the win as a stat for evaluating pitchers and got to what matters.

Felix might not get the farewell treatment of others in his position simply because he’s spent his career stashed away in the corner of the country no one seems to notice, playing games that didn’t matter. Felix Hernandez won’t get to make a playoff start. He barely got any pennant chasing games to partake in, with last year being about the only time the Mariners were in hailing distance of a playoff spot. And he was pretty much toast by then.

Hernandez was also the rare pitcher, though you can see Kershaw doing it now, who was able to reinvent himself when his stuff changed. King came up throwing gas and more of it, averaging 95 MPH with his fastball when he arrived. And at that time, that was godlike weaponry, instead of par for the course as it is now. But that went away over the years, and yet Hernandez not only got by with guile and craft but still continued to dominate with it, using his change in ways that hadn’t been seen before. In 2014, he threw his change a third of the time, still kind of unheard of, and rode it to a 2.14 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP, both the best marks of his career.

And that’s where the wave seemed to have broke for King Felix. His fastball continued to lose verve, and no amount of feel or touch or genius could see Hernandez continue to dance around hitters. His ERA has climbed every year since, concluding with an unsightly 5.55 last season that should be stricken from the records when he retires so as better to highlight his greatness. It’s over 6.00 this year, and Hernandez has missed most of the season with injury problems.

Felix’s contract is up after this season, and though he’ll go down as the second-best Mariners pitcher ever behind Randy Johnson (and as Mariners it would actually be a debate who was better), it’s hard to see where Seattle could find a role for him. His stuff doesn’t suggest he can be anymore effective out of the bullpen, unless he was able to fashion more of a slider or breaking ball and live almost exclusively on that or a change as something of a gimmick/change-of-look reliever. He’s only 33, which doesn’t sound old, but he’s been around for 14 years. Arms have only so many bullets.

One part of Felix’s legacy, as Joe Sheehan pointed out in his newsletter, is he’s probably one of the last teenagers we’ll ever see take a major league mound. Since Hernandez’s debut, only Julio Arias has thrown more than 50 innings in a season before reaching 20. The way Hernandez’s stuff deteriorated certainly would scare most any GM.

Still, Hernandez was a treasure, and his personality would have played much bigger in the game were he anywhere else but Seattle. He was Jose Fernandez before Jose Fernandez. Home starts of his were local holidays in Seattle, and perhaps no player in a couple decades was as loved as he was there. It’s a shame it’ll end like this, though most pitching careers do. It would have been apt if he’d gotten to pitch any game that truly mattered, but that’s not on him.

Maybe he can find somewhere next year, with a pitching coach/scouting staff that has an idea on how he can be effective out of a pen. Just to have some innings here and there that remind, or in the case of a lot of people, show for the first time what he was. There are few who remain the league’s best first with power and then with brains, but he was one of them.

Maybe this is it, and King Felix will remain a cult classic. Maybe that’s more apt for a Seattle product. That’s how they like it.

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