I spent a lot of time defending King Felix this year, primarily because I spent a lot of time reading the tweets of assholes on Twitter giving him a hard time. I’m not saying the guy is infallible, but if you’re just joining us on the Seattle Mariners bandwagon, you need to learn your fucking place. You need to understand what King Felix means to this organization and to all the fans who have stuck with this organization through all the bullshit. King Felix was loyal to the Seattle Mariners when he had absolutely no reason to be loyal. His desire has always been to be a winner, to get to the post-season, to put some hardware on his fingers. He could’ve played out any of his contracts and signed a max deal with the team of his choice. He could’ve been a Yankee a thousand times by now! But, he chose Seattle. He chose the Mariners. Yes, he wants to win, but he wants the MARINERS to be the team that takes him there. That says a lot.
He’s also, not for nothing, been extremely durable and extremely productive in his time with us. He leads the team in wins and innings pitched, he’s got a Cy Young Award and he’s pitched a perfect game. He had a string of 10 consecutive years of 30 or more starts snapped in 2016. In short, he has been the Seattle Mariners, for good and for ill. And, it’s my opinion that he’s earned the right to play out his entire career and retire as a member of the Seattle Mariners, without any wisecracks from the peanut gallery who have only recently started following this team and have no frame of reference whatsoever for what King Felix means. Even if his final years shows him as the worst pitcher in the league, I’ll still cheer and root him on, because I’m first and foremost a Felix Hernandez fan, while I’m a Seattle Mariners fan a distant second.
But, you know, his 2016 season wasn’t his best. Indeed, one could argue it was actually his worst, but I’ll just say it was far from ideal. This team really could’ve used a Felix in his prime this year. A dominant and healthy Felix over the course of the full year could’ve been worth as many as 3-5 more wins for this team, which as we saw with the wild card race, would’ve meant the difference between making the playoffs and falling oh so short.
Felix says he has some things to work on in the offseason. Building up his legs and shifting the course of his training regimen, in hopes to come back stronger next year. He also plans to pitch in the WBC in March, which on the one hand means even more innings (and even more risk) on an arm that’s thrown a ton in his 30 years on this planet; but, on the other hand, maybe he’ll be built up and ready to roll faster this year when April rolls around.
What we know about his 2016 is that it wasn’t pretty. He strained his calf and had to go on the DL on June 1st; he wouldn’t return until July 20th, missing somewhere between 8-9 starts. I did the speculative math sometime before, but I can’t find the post now; regardless, I have to wonder if he wouldn’t have been worth 2-3 wins just by being healthy all year, not even taking into account his bout with regression. I mean, we had to suffer through some terrible AAA pitchers this year in his absence.
But, the really scary thing about 2016 Felix is that regression. This seems to be a 2-year trend at this point, as his 2015 wasn’t all that impressive either. It wasn’t alarming, but you could see the wear on the tread. A few more games where Felix got blown out of the water, a few more situations where he wasn’t able to get out of a jam. Well, 2016 put that into overdrive a little bit. He had 25 starts this year, and 7 of them were pretty atrocious. These weren’t just any starts, either. One was against Oakland, two were against Texas, and two more were against Houston. Part of that, I’m sure, is due to those teams being so used to seeing Felix so many times in a season. But, part of that is those teams having a lot of really talented hitters, who have done their homework and have smart gameplans when going up to face Felix. They’re laying off pitches down in the zone because they’re pretty sure those pitches are going to fall out of the zone.
The real trouble would appear to be his fastball. I’m not as concerned in the decreased velocity as most people are, though you can point to the numbers of comparable pitchers who’ve lost velo and they’re not pretty. I’m more concerned with the location of his fastballs. Felix has built a career on his devastating change up, and a likely Hall of Fame career at that. His change up looks exactly like his fastball, until it falls off the face of the Earth and the batter goes chasing after an impossibility. But, Felix has seemed to have lost total command of his fastball. He’s leaving it up to get crushed, and at 91 mph, it’s starting to be crushed with a frightening regularity.
He’s probably not going to get that velo back, not over the course of a full season. Maybe a MPH or so, but he’s never going to be what he was even 5 years ago. That having been said, he’s got to get better at putting that fastball in the bottom of the strikezone and painting the corners with it.
I don’t think Felix is done. I just want to make that clear. He’s a smart, savvy pitcher, and as long as he puts in the work, he’ll make the appropriate adjustments. He can return to being that dominant ace he used to be. I just hope the team we have around him can carry us the rest of the way to FINALLY get him to where he belongs: in the MLB post-season.