Felix Hernandez has always been one of my favorite ballplayers. Ever since entering the Show in 2005 as a 19 year old, he has dominated Major League Baseball (MLB) hitters. Most importantly, from a fan’s perspective, he has remained loyal to the only team he has ever played for, the Seattle Mariners.
That loyalty is despite the fact the Mariners have persistently failed to support him with high caliber talent throughout his career. As a result, thirteen years and over 2,600 innings since his MLB debut, Felix has yet to pitch a game in the postseason. Now he is 32 and already potentially entering the twilight of his career.
The Mariners recently moved him to the bullpen. And with good reason. His 2018 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an abysmal -1.4. For reference, here is a good “rule-of-thumb chart” to judge a player by this sabermetric statistic according to FanGraphs:
|Role Player||1-2 WAR|
|Solid Starter||2-3 WAR|
|Good Player||3-4 WAR|
In 2010, when he won the Cy Young award, Felix’s WAR was 7.2. While the expectations will never be that high for him again, it is difficult to watch someone deteriorate in real time, especially now that the Mariners have a fighting chance to make the playoffs. Instead of making a serious effort to contend in Felix’s prime, the organization used first round draft picks on guys who didn’t realize their potential (Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin), were injury prone (Danny Hultzen), or were just plain bums (Steven Baron – yes, who?). They also made disastrous trades, such as the infamous one in 2008 where the Mariners received Erik Bedard in exchange for a number of players, including one perennial All-Star named Adam Jones (thank you, Bill Bavasi).
Thankfully, none of the Mariner’s slough of sub-par general managers ever traded King Felix. Although that is not to say trade rumors failed to float around him each year, particularly near the trade deadline when it was clear the Mariners were not in contention. Despite their lack of competitiveness, Felix never asked to leave. Seattle was his home, and he was proud of it.
Rarely do you find professional athletes like him. Aside from his unwavering loyalty, he has always brought contagious energy and a childlike love for the game. Watching him is inspiring. There are few people you will ever witness so passionate and intense about their profession.
With all of this history in mind, when I saw him warming up in the bullpen during Seattle’s latest series against Houston, it made me pause. A guy who has given his right arm to a franchise, once a thunder bolt straight from the hands of Zeus himself, is now relegated to the bullpen and struggling to survive. Yet even in the wake of this setback, he has handled himself with the highest levels of professionalism. Through a devastating look of defeat after his last start, he accepted what was coming. He did not make a scene. He did not complain. But most importantly, he did not lose his competitive edge. He made it known to everyone that he still views himself as a “starting pitcher.” Felix will need to be escorted from the stadium if he is told otherwise.
Father time may be catching up to Felix, as he does with all of us sooner or later, but I have faith. I truly believe that Felix’s competitive nature and the extra mileage on his motor will prevail. He needs to reinvent himself. He can no longer pitch like the 24 year old Felix that consistently pumped in 95 mph petro, with a devastating change-up that fell off a table, and a curveball that made the best hitters’ knees buckle. But Felix is crafty, and what those years of experience and losing provided him is clear: wisdom and an undying will to win.
So when the Mariners do make the playoffs this year, I expect to see one thing: number 34 reclaiming his throne on the mound. Long live the King.