The Seattle Mariners’ Wild-Card Starting Pitcher Dilemma

With two unclaimed American League Wild Card golden tickets and the Seattle Mariners within reach of suspending their 16-year postseason drought, a big question begs to be asked: If the team makes it to the wild-card single-game playoff, who will be their starting pitcher?

With James Paxton coming off the DL and into rotation this month, he could be just what the Mariners need to not only catapult to the top of the race, but deliver a win against their fellow wild-card finalist.  Paxton broke a franchise record by opening the season with twenty-one scoreless innings. His fastball velocity averaged the most amongst left-handed pitchers at a whopping 96.7 MPH. In July, he was named AL Pitcher of the Month, and his tremendous (albeit injury-prone) season stands at 12-3 with a 2.78 ERA and a total of 138 strikeouts. When healthy, Paxton is a force not to be reckoned with and is an obvious ace for the Mariners.

This fact could be a striking blow to the legacy of Felix Hernandez, who is experiencing a decline from his spring chicken days. On and off the DL for the last two seasons coupled with an ERA of 4.28 is not necessarily a recipe for starter-success. But King Felix has had a decorated history with his team, and is arguably the best pitcher in Seattle Mariners’ history. Since his debut in 2005, he’s received the Cy Young Award, five All-Star selections, and, most iconically, was the 23rd pitcher in Major League Baseball’s history to pitch a perfect game (no one has done it since). He has the most strikeouts and wins of any Mariners’ pitcher in history. What’s perhaps the most notable about the King is his nonexistent postseason career, due in part to his devotion to the low-scoring Mariners–a choice that could potentially cost Hernandez the Hall of Fame status he invariably deserves. He has been called “the Unluckiest Pitcher of All Time” by ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield, for having the highest percentage of great starts (zero or one runs) with no wins.

Will this unlucky streak for Felix continue? Perhaps there is no space on a collective baseball team to consider the luck and fate of one individual player, especially at a wild card single-game playoff. Manager Scott Servais is likely to start the pitcher that will have the best chances of winning the game, and a healthy Paxton is surely that guy, but it does leave to question where that leaves the staunchly loyal (and royal) fan-favorite.

Hernandez and Paxton will pitch back to back in Texas next week, and it goes without saying that the next couple of weeks leading up to the playoffs will determine the postseason fate of these exceptional starters.