Yesterday the M’s went on to win their 51st game against a dangerous Pirates team, on the road in beautiful PNC Park, by a score of 7-4. The M’s are now 3-1 on what is a difficult road trip that takes them through Toronto, Pittsburgh and Chicago, each against playoff contenders.
The M’s won on the strength of their bats and solid bullpen performance. Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez struggled for six innings, but managed to get the win to improve his record to 7-4.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Felix threw this team on his back and carried them kicking and screaming, to the finish line. The Mariners might win 1-0, or tragically fall short by the same score. Surrounded by ineffective banjo hitters, and past their prime run producers, The King managed to bob and weave his way to a Cy Young award in 2010, two second place finishes in 2009 and 2014, and six All-Star performances.
But in 2016, things don’t look so royally rosy. Though Felix struggled in 2015, suffering some epic meltdowns (helloooooo Red Sox,) we were all primed with fingers and toes crossed for a resurgent King in 2016. It hasn’t happened. There is the calf injury, causing him to miss two months-two months the starting rotation has been a mess. But even when Felix has pitched, he hasn’t been the Felix we’ve known.
Teams are striking early against Felix, putting the King and the team in a hole. Remember yesterday’s game against the Bucs? Three runs in the first inning and solo homer to Francicso Liriano (??!!!) in the second put the Mariners down 4-0. Hernandez has allowed 17 of his 29 earned runs in the first three innings.
It is equally evident that just looking at some important 2016 numbers that Felix is simply struggling to get outs. Compare these to his career numbers (in parentheses.)
- BB/9: 3.4 (2.5)
- Hits/9 8.3 (8.0)
- HR/9 1.1 (.7)
- K/9 6.9 (8.5)
- K/BB 2.00 (3.34)
So Felix is allowing more baserunners and dingers-a deadly combination. He’s also striking out fewer batters, making it much more difficult to get out of jams. This is reflected in important combination stats:
- WHIP: 1.308 (1.175)
- FIP: 4.54 (3.24)
His 2016 FIP is by far the highest of his career.
One other important difference between yesterday’s Felix and Felix in his prime is innings per start. In 2015, not a great year, Felix made 31 starts. Note: A start counts for only one category. Example a complete game counts only for complete games, not for 7.0 or 8.0 inning starts,
- Felix threw two 9.0 inning complete games.
- Felix completed 8.0 innings four times.
- Felix completed 7.0 innings 11 times
- Felix pitched into the 7th inning 4 times.
In 2016, Felix has struggled to get deep into games. Felix has made 12 starts:
- Felix has zero 9.0 inning complete games
- Felix has not completed 8.0 innings
- Felix pitched into the 8th inning two times.
- Felix completed 7.0 innings three times
- Felix pitched into the 7th inning once.
What does all this say, what does it all mean? Short term, it means that Felix is just another guy on a struggling rotation trying to find himself every fifth day. Maybe he’s fighting through minor or major physical issues, maybe he’s in decline and this is the Felix we have. I have no doubt Felix remains a clubhouse leader and an important rallying symbol for this team. I also have no doubt that Felix works hard every day, and it is a testament to his mental toughness and his knowledge of how to pitch that he gets knocked around and remains somewhat successful even if he isn’t dominant.
But we’d be fooling ourselves to think that Felix is an ace, a guy the Mariners can walk out, face another team’s ace, whether it is Dallas Keuchel or Chris Sale, and know it will be an equal fight. He’s not the guy the Mariners can count on for seven or more tough innings every fifth day. Perhaps we’re seeing the end of Felix Hernandez as a star. Perhaps we’re seeing Felix in a pitching no-man’s land as his repertoire and approach to pitching begins to change with his aging curve and the wear and tear on his arm. Perhaps he becomes a different kind of pitcher.
I don’t know where all this leads. But this I do know; Felix Hernandez is signed through 2019 for nearly $80 million. My money is on the Mariners and Felix to figure it out with a plan to make him as effective as possible, perhaps in a different way. But it’s not likely that a major intervention, whether surgical or mechanical, will take place until after the current campaign is over.
So the Felix we have is the Felix we’ve got. Here’s hoping he’s able to knock some rust off his game, and continue pitching with guile and toughness. And here’s hoping his teammates carry him as he carried this team for the better part of a decade.