When pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training and then later when the position players arrived, Felix Hernandez, like virtually every other player in major league baseball, was in the “best shape of his life.” General Manager Jerry Dipoto gushed on his podcast, The Wheelhouse, that it was the earliest he had ever seen Felix throw a bullpen in Spring Training, glossing over the implication that maybe that meant that he hasn’t always been in the “best shape of his life” coming into each season, relying on Spring Training to get in condition, like in the old days of baseball.
Dipoto and the media covering the Seattle Mariners were highly optimistic that a rebound of sorts was in order for the King. His first several outings of the Spring fueled the fire of eternal hope and optimism for a Mariners franchise that has failed to reach the post-season since 2001. Then a line drive comebacker nailed Hernandez in his right forearm, putting him on the shelf for two weeks.
The interruption of the pre-season would inevitably lead to limited innings early in the regular season. But, Hernandez was ready to take the mound on Opening Day for the ninth consecutive season and for the tenth time overall.
The two starts Felix Hernandez has made so far this season could not be more dissimilar. One, opening day, was about as good as could be expected of the thirty-one-year old former Cy Young winner with two years of injury and decline in the recent past. The second start against the light hitting San Francisco Giants was about as bad as it can get. The question going forward is which Felix Hernandez is the “real” Felix Hernandez?
To kick off the season at home in front of a sold-out ballpark, the Seattle Mariners sent Felix Hernandez to the mound for the ninth consecutive season. Those in attendance or watching on television were witness to a flashback treat of sorts.
Hernandez pitched 5.1 innings, threw 83 pitches, 49 for strikes, and allowed no runs, earned or otherwise. He struck out 4 batters and walked just 2. His game score was a modest 66 but given the brevity of the outing it was quite good. Also factoring in the talent of the Cleveland Indians lineup, a team picked almost unanimously to win the AL Central and legitimately compete for the World Series, made the start all that much more impressive.
What was notable about the outing was Felix’s increased use of off-speed pitches, especially the curve ball. While Fangraphs and Baseball Reference do not present single game pitch types or velocity and the data has now been updated for the season with the second game included, my recollection was that he threw the curve ball in the high 20% range, an increase over his career of 7 or 8 percentage points. Also, the velocity on the curve and the changeup were down, a good thing, creating more separation between his diminished fastball and the off-speed stuff, which adds deception to the repertoire that has been missing the past two seasons.
So after just one game, Felix Hernandez had reinvented himself along the lines of CC Sabathia and was ready to lead the Mariners to the playoffs. Then came his second start.
Game Two in San Francisco
The early narrative surrounding the San Francisco Giants of 2018 has been how slow of a start newcomers Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria were off to. The Giants went out in the offseason and acquired the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder and the Tampa Rays third baseman in order to infuse some power into a lineup that has been anemic, to say the least, for the past several seasons. Given his handling of the powerful Indians lineup, Felix Hernandez was set to breeze through this Giants lineup. It didn’t quite go that way.
It was apparent from the get go that Hernandez did not have his command. He walked two batters in the first inning, including walking in the first run of game on four pitches to Pablo Sandoval with the bases loaded. Brandon Belt would score on a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Brendon Crawford would bring in Buster Posey for the third run of the inning.
All-tolled, Hernandez would face 23 hitters, delivering just 11 first pitch strikes, walking 5, and giving up 3 home runs, punctuated by the three-run shot by the Kung Fu Panda that splashed down in McCovey Cove. Felix’s final box score read 4.0 innings pitched, four hitters faced in the 5th inning with no recorded outs, 6 hits, 8 runs, 8 earned runs, 5 walks, and just 1 strikeout.
For the Season, So Far
At this point in 2018, after two polar opposite starts, Hernandez is 1-1 with a 7.71 ERA, a 16.3 BB%, and just 4.82 K/9. Obviously, this early one bad outing skews the numbers, especially when it was as bad as Wednesday in San Francisco. As promising as the opening day start looked, the most recent start can’t help but sound some alarms.
The question going forward, is which Felix Hernandez will the Seattle Mariners get over the course of the season? My default answer is usually neither. The “real” Felix Hernandez is probably somewhere in between the two extremes, and I do suspect the season long statistics will bear that out. But, I’m beginning to suspect that the path to a solid, if somewhat mediocre, statistical season will be filled with really good outings and the occasional Giants type game.
King Felix’s next start will likely be in Kansas City next week and Mariners fans will more than likely see him pitch in his next home outing against the Houston Astros.