Although the Seattle Mariners don’t have the most successful history, they have been blessed with a few incredible pitchers. As different as could be, hard-throwing and hot-headed Randy Johnson passed the torch of legendary Mariner down to the soft-tossing broken bat artist Jamie Moyer, who in turn passed it down to the fiery Felix Hernandez. The Mariners may be at another one of those crossroads now, where we find ourselves wondering if it’s time to move on from the King.
Although he did toe the rubber on opening day for the 11th time, and 10th consecutive year, when you tune into a Mariners game, there is no question that this isn’t the same Felix that you are used to seeing. The first concerns started a few years ago, in 2016. Felix threw under 200 innings for the first time since 2007, and only made 25 starts, averaging his fewest innings per start since his rookie season of 2005. Normally you could brush this off to an injury, or maybe just a rough year. For Felix, this wasn’t the case. His strikeouts were down, his walks were up, his home runs were up, and his velocity was down.
Along with the loss of velocity, comes a loss in effectiveness to the movement of his pitches. What made Felix so effective for so many years wasn’t that he was an incredible strikeout pitcher; he has never been higher than 9.5 per 9. It was that he got so much movement on his change-up from throwing it so hard, that he induced a lot of poor contact.
As the velocity has been decreasing, so has the movement on the changeup. A changeup in the high 80’s that occasionally would touch 90 that moves like a breaking ball is incredibly difficult to get a good swing on. A change-up in the lower to mid 80’s that moves like a changeup from your run of the mill pitcher isn’t going to get the job done unless you locate it with precision, as his former teammate Moyer would do on a nightly basis; albeit with a change that was much slower.
A bright spot in the potential decline of Felix Hernandez is the possibility of passing the torch to another immensely talented pitcher. If Felix isn’t able to regain his ace form, he should be able to teach and help James Paxton achieve that status, which Paxton seems to be on the way to doing already. He has shown the ability, throwing his first career no-hitter earlier this year against the Toronto Blue Jays, and putting together an impressive month of May. One of the first signs to watch for Felix coming back to form would be improving on how he does in the first inning. As of June 1st, Felix has an ERA of 12.00 in the first inning, and an ERA of 3.18 in innings two through five. If the first inning can match the next four, it will be a step in the right direction for Felix.
Pitchers have shown they can come back from a dip in velocity to regain their former glory, and we don’t have to go far to see an example of this, as it is happening in the Mariners own division. Justin Verlander is three years older than Felix and is leading the league in ERA currently. Detroit Tiger fans were worried about the same type of thing that is facing Felix right now, and he proved that a pitcher in his 30’s can regain what he had before.
What Mariners fans need to hope for is that Felix can find his former glory in a Mariners uniform and that it won’t take a change of scenery to restore the old Felix. Randy Johnson arguably didn’t even enter his prime until he left the Mariners. As shown in his last start against the Rays, he can still bring his A game, so I wouldn’t suggest giving up on Felix Hernandez just yet.
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