Last Thursday Felix Hernandez made his tenth straight Opening Day start for the Seattle Mariners, his 11th overall. Entering his fourteenth year with the M’s, Felix’ position in team lore is more than secure, just as his place in the history of the game itself has its own chapter. Fans everywhere have watched from afar as he has built his kingdom in the Pacific Northwest on the back of prodigious talent and a uniquely fiery, bombastic personality. He isn’t what he once was when it comes to the talent, but as he proved in his first start of the year, Felix Hernandez is still magnificent.
The box score numbers don’t quite speak to the dominance he demonstrated on the mound last week. That said, he still held the Indians scoreless for 5 ⅓ innings, allowing just two hits and five total baserunners including one catcher’s interference. He was working on a pitch limit, something in the 85-pitch range, otherwise who knows how far he could have pushed the shutout. He did it in a way that, these days, you’d just expect a pitcher to get hammered. Since his debut, Felix has constantly and consistently evolved as a pitcher, leaning less on the hard stuff each year:
His average fastball has dropped from 95.8 mph when he debuted in 2005 to just 90.8 on Thursday, while the league average has headed the opposite direction, 90.1 in 2005 and 92.6 now.
The evolution of a pitcher is always interesting to study. The way they manage adversity and their own limitations is often a fascinating journey. New pitches emerge, strange sequences, arm angles, the whole gamut. On Thursday, Felix’s management looked, in the best possible way, like a pile of garbage:
Typically that’s the pitch mix you expect out of Jamie Moyer, Josh Tomlin, or Jered Weaver. Your typical trash tosser who gets by on guile and deception. The type of guy who never had the velocity to just blow batters away, so they have to embarrass them in a different way, get in their heads, and work mostly with offspeed pitches. Admittedly, this is what Felix has become. He’s been a full-time starter in the majors for over a decade, so his arm is a relatively old 32. But what is so amazing about him is that, unlike the players mentioned above, he once had the stuff to be truly, untouchably dominant.
Felix’ fastball/changeup combo brought him a Cy Young in 2010, a perfect game in 2012, and has built the bulk a case for a Hall of Fame bid when all is said and done. Though he doesn’t have that raw ability anymore, he’s learning to live with a different repertoire of pitches.
Perhaps part of it was the Indians’ own wrong approach, but watching the game he just had them guessing from the get-go. Both Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis looked lost to open the game, chasing changes and curves. They were plainly hunting fastballs and a type of
pitcher that had disappeared years prior. And the whole team kept at it, too. Nine of the 20 batters Felix faced saw three pitches or less, and of the battles he did give in to, the only really hard-hit ball came after a seven pitch at-bat facing Kipnis, resulting in a long single.
When he got the chance, he utterly devoured weak hitters. Tyler Naquin is probably a quad-A player. I admit to being a massive fan of his, driven no doubt by that amazing run he had in 2016. He put up a 134 wRC+ that season after Michael Brantley got injured and hit an inside-the-park walk-off home run against the Blue Jays. It was an enduring image of the season. Then people found out he couldn’t hit high fastballs to save his life. But he’s cool, and sometimes the fan in you just roots irrationally for a total longshot. On Sunday, he was... over-matched. His first at-bat did not go well:
Each pitch, a bit lower than the last, each pitch a swinging strike, the last in the dirt. Once Naquin chased the first one, a curve, Felix attacked that weakness like a lion hunting the weakest wildebeest. Another curve and a changeup later and Naquin found himself headed for the dugout.
Maybe it’s not that impressive that Hernandez dispatched Naquin so easily, or that he only recorded four strikeouts in more than five innings of work with two walks. But watching the confidence and skill with which Felix did it, the utter hopelessness of the batter, it was a glimmer of a bygone time.
He won’t return to the utter dominance he once wielded over hitters, but for a day at least Hernandez held what should be a potent offense all but punch-less. He is still a joy to watch even if the raw energy and power has been tempered by age. But even if he’s not touching 96, a crafty K is still met with the same exuberance with which he celebrated so many punchouts and close victories before. He’s one of a kind, truly a king among men.
Merritt Rohlfing marvels at baseball and writes about it at Beyond the Box Score, then focuses on just the Indains at Let’s Go Tribe. Toss him a follow on Twitter @MerrillLunch for top baseball analysis.