Mariners 2011 Season Overview: Felix Hernandez

I’m probably NOT going to do one of these on every player, but this will be a running theme over the next month or so.  I figured, if we’re going to look back on the team that was, we might as well start at the top.

Felix Hernandez has been on a tear.  Over the last three seasons – when the Seattle Mariners FINALLY let the King rip to his full potential – these are just a smattering of his numbers:

2009:  238.2 IP, 71 BB, 217 K’s, 2.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 19-5 record
2010:  249.2 IP, 70 BB, 232 K’s, 2.27 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 13-12 record
2011:  233.2 IP, 67 BB, 222 K’s, 3.47 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 14-14 record

To start, he’s not just giving you 200 innings every year, he’s huffing and puffing and blowing 200’s house in!  He’s giving you well over 200 strike outs while doing a great job of otherwise keeping guys off the base paths.  His traditional numbers are excellent and his sabermetric numbers are elite level.

Still, it’s plain to see that there was something a tad off about his 2011 season.  And I’m not just looking at an uptick in ERA to come to this conclusion.  You could just SEE it out there, with your eyes, Felix wasn’t the same Felix he was last year.  And I find that somewhat odd.

I don’t remember many, if any, games where he was that dominant force down the stretch in the later innings.  Remember those?  Games where he’d give up a cheap run in the first inning, then mow them down for the next eight.  His change up getting nastier and nastier with each passing inning, as if the sweat dripping from his right hand gave the ball magical bat-avoiding powers.  Instead, it seemed like Felix was a little more mortal this season.  He would tire in the later innings.  Laboring on the mound, reaching deep into his aresnal to find the perfect pitch, ultimately watching in horror as that pitch didn’t do what he wanted it to do.

I remember a lot of cheap runs coming LATE in ballgames this year.  I won’t say it looked like Felix was giving up out there; I’m just saying he didn’t exactly look otherworldly as he had in 2009 & 2010.

It says on his stat line that he had 5 complete games, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you that any of them stood out.  And it’s not like Felix is Mr. Shutout or anything, but he ends the season with 0.  In fact, there was only one game all season where he left with the other team having scored 0 runs (actually, I don’t know if that’s true or not, I bet the bullpen let inherited runners score a time or two).  In 2009 & 2010, I remember Felix posting 0’s left and right!  Maybe not complete game shutouts, but he’d go 7 or 8 with 0 runs scored for the other team.

His best month of 2011 was August, but it’s not like you can look at that – or any other stretch of quality games – and say that he was truly DOMINANT.  Remember in 2009, after the month of May when Wak laid into him about giving up stolen bases and overall being a leader?  Remember his month of June in 2009 when he gave up 4 earned runs?  FOUR!  In nearly 40 innings, he allowed FOUR earned runs.  Or that September when he gave up 7 earned runs in 46+ innings?  Or in August of last year (plus his first start in September) when he gave up THREE earned runs in over 50 innings pitched?  Those were some dominant stretches of baseball.  Dominant stretches we never quite got to see this year.

So, what is our answer to the question of Why?  He gave up a few more hits than the last couple years, but he still walked slightly less.  His number of home runs given up is only 2 more than last year; there doesn’t appear to be anything mechanically wrong with him.

Most people want to blame a lack of focus because he’s on a terrible team.  I COULD buy that, except for two very important reasons.  First, he was on a terrible team last year and that seemed to only fuel his fire to get his first Cy Young Award all the more.  He needed perfection night-in and night-out last season and that quest only made him better.  Second, these Mariners WERE in contention through June.  And yet, Felix’s numbers through June were pretty much what they are now at season’s end.  Good, not great.

If nothing else, Felix has been steady this season.  There were never any real big ups or downs with him.  He came out, he got his work in, he led by example, and he wasn’t dominant.  But, even still, Felix is so talented – so breathtakingly talented – that him at his sub-par is still a sight to behold.  If one pitch doesn’t seem to have any life on a given night, he can reach for 3 or 4 other pitches to carry him through to the quality start.  And when he IS on (like that 13-strikeout, 0-walk game against San Diego back in May), he will punish you and make you wish you’d never even HEARD of the game of baseball.

The only reason I can come up with, like an itch in my brain that can’t be scratched because it’s entirely conjecture, is that Felix was one man on a mission in 2009 and 2010.  The Mariners let him off his leash, let him push his talents and his body to the limits, in that quest for the first Cy Young Award of his career.  2009 was a snowball rolling down a mountain after the month of May; unfortunately, Zack Greinke was just THAT much better than him.  2010 was a different story entirely.  That year was All-Felix All The Time.  He forced the Baseball Writers to vote for him in spite of a VERY pedestrian win/loss record by the simple fact that he WAS the best pitcher in baseball; numbers be damned.  You could just SEE it; like you could see Felix wasn’t All-Felix this year.

My point is, those two seasons may never come around again for Felix in a Mariners uniform.  Hell, they may never come around again for Felix period.  But, he went through a lot to get his hardware last year.  Two solid years of intense focus and back-breaking labor to grasp the prize that was so deservedly his.

Can you begrudge a man one hangover season, especially when that season is still very good compared to most other pitchers in the Major Leagues?  Let the man recharge.  Let him regroup his focus.  Let him come out next year and light the motherfucking world on fire like Sherman’s march to the sea.

One thing to keep in mind:  Felix appears to be pushed by greatness.  In 2009, Felix still had Erik Bedard on his team, as well as a rejuvenated Jarrod Washburn (for approximately half a season each); in 2010, Felix had Cliff Lee (again, for about half a season).  Those were established veterans having career years in the presence of the King; Felix HAD to assert his dominance over the rest!  In 2011, Felix was clearly the Alpha Male by a country mile; it wasn’t even close.  In 2012, though, Pineda will be in year two.  Will we see a guy who’s ready to push Felix back into that dominant role of Greatness we’re so used to seeing?

Count on it.

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