The last time King Felix was really KING FELIX was in 2014. Don’t get me wrong, he’s always been good, but 2014 was the last time he was an elite, Top 5 level starting pitcher. Over the last two seasons, things have been trending disturbingly downward. His strikeout rate has gone down, his fastball velocity has gone down, his command comes and goes, and his innings pitched has started its decline. Obviously, last year he had his first major injury that saw him miss significant time; I don’t know if he’s ever missed more than 3-4 starts in any year since his first call-up to the Majors. Last year, he had 25 starts, upwards of 8-9 off of his usual pace, and when he made those starts he wasn’t all that effective a lot of the time.
We’re looking for a bounce-back year in a big way out of the King. He sets the tone. He starts the very first game of the year, and he’s the man we count on every fifth day to be the stopper of losing streaks and the starter of winning ones. When he pitches like a 4th or 5th starter – i.e. you never know what you’re going to get out of him from start to start – the Mariners feel off. For so long, he’s been the one constant on a team of total disappointment, it’s weird to see him struggle and need to be picked up by others.
It’s no secret that I’ve got my qualms about this year’s rotation. Iwakuma’s getting up there, and what are the odds he stays fully healthy for two consecutive seasons? Paxton has always been a wild card, with his injury and effectiveness issues. Smyly is an unknown at this point, but he obviously hasn’t panned out as an elite starter people once thought he might be. And I think we can all agree Gallardo’s best days are behind him; the question now is: can he cobble together something close to respectability? If not, will the Mariners nip him in the bud in time, and can Miranda pick up the slack in the stretch run of the season? There’s a ton of volatility in this rotation, and I’ve got it going bad about 70% of the time; that’s BEFORE I even factor in Felix Hernandez and what could be a make-or-break season in his career.
To his credit, he’s working his butt off this offseason, and he’s letting it be known to everyone with an Internet connection. He’s only going to be 31 when the season starts, so we should still have a few more years left in his prime. But, as everyone loves to mention, he’s got a ton of miles logged on that right arm. He was 19 years old as a rookie. He’s made 359 starts and thrown 2,415.2 innings in his Major League career. What we need to see now is what kind of a second act are we going to get out of the King? I think his days of striking out more guys than innings pitched are over. Can he transition into a pitch-to-contact type, and can he still be as effective doing so?
I think we’ve already started to see him transition into this role, to middling results. But, we’ve seen increased use of the curveball and his other offspeed pitches. The problem is, we’ve seen batters increasingly lay off those offspeed pitches, and when Felix struggles it’s with his fastball command. He catches too much of the plate and gets pounded accordingly. I think, more than anything, he needs to work on improving his sinker, get guys swinging on top of that early and rolling over on more groundballs. Once he starts getting ahead in the count again, the offspeed stuff will be more effective.
King Felix has been on a Hall of Fame pace through his first 12 seasons, but he’s by no means a lock if his career ended today. The all-time greats pull off an impressive second act nobody saw coming, ideally full of post-season appearances and dominating performances on a national stage. If these Mariners are going to break the streak and get back to the playoffs, they’re going to need their ace doing his thing. And, if these Mariners expect to do anything in the playoffs, they’re going to need their ace to set the tone.
It all starts with Felix. Now it’s up to him to carry the load.