This thing has been bad for a while now. Obviously, it stems from the simple fact that Felix Hernandez’s stuff just isn’t what it used to be. Part of that is overblown. People make it sound like Felix was throwing 94 mph smoke as recently as two years ago, but he hasn’t been THAT Felix for a while now. He wasn’t even THAT Felix when he won his Cy Young Award in 2010! Even then, he was barely scraping by on 91 or 92 mph fastballs, but his changeup was so unhittable that it didn’t even matter that there was hardly any difference in speeds between the two.
That’s what’s so frustrating about the narrative around Felix’s decline of late, that almost everyone gets wrong. It’s not the quality of his stuff that’s changed, it’s the accuracy behind it, and the simple fact that the book on him has been figured out. Lay off the changeup, because he rarely ever throws it for strikes. Wait him out on the fastball, then pound it into submission. He can get by on a pretty good curveball to make people look foolish a time or two, but eventually he’s going to run into a bad inning. It’s just a matter of getting him out of there before he can do too much damage to himself.
Maybe it starts with a bad call from the ump. A blown called third strike that keeps an at-bat alive, long enough to see that batter walk because Felix will do a lot out there, but give in isn’t one of them. He’s not going to throw you a 3-2 fastball in the zone when he can try to fool you with his bread n’ butter changeup. Only, like I said, guys aren’t falling for that line anymore.
Or maybe it starts with a booted ball in the infield. Felix does his job, gets them to hit it at someone, but Kyle Seager has it go off his glove. Seager seemingly makes that play 9 times out of 10, but for whatever reason, when Felix is on the mound, the ball finds a hole in his glove.
Maybe it’s a bloop that drops carefully into No Man’s Land. Maybe it’s a seeing-eye grounder up the middle past two diving middle infielders. Maybe it’s a line-drive rocket off of Felix’s hip. Or, maybe it’s a matter of Felix thinking he can steal a quick strike and get ahead in the count. Maybe the book on a certain hitter is that he always takes strike one in his first at bat of the game, except this time the batter flips the script and mashes that two-seamer for a 400-foot blast to left-center to lead off the game.
There’s no telling how exactly it’s going to happen, but it happens just about every single game now. The Unravelling. In the good ol’ days, Felix would find a way to bulldog his way to 6 or 7 innings, limiting the damage to just one or two early runs. Now, he’s lucky to finish his final inning without giving up a matching number of runs. He usually at least figures out a way to string some zeroes together, but there’s almost always that one crooked number that severs the artery and sends his performance to the morgue.
He can’t be trusted to be what he was. He’s reduced to being this team’s #5 starter. His streak of Opening Day starts is slated to end this year, with Marco Gonzales set to make the first start in Japan next week. We’re famously in the final year of his contract that sees him making $27 million, and at this point we probably shouldn’t even count on him seeing it through to the end.
Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais were brought in prior to the 2016 season and they’ve literally never seen Great Felix. He’s been good at times – mostly in that very first year – but never really great. Not like he was. In that sense – and many others – they don’t have the ties to Felix that we, the fans, do. Sure, it’s hard to move on from a local legend, not the least of which because he makes a prohibitive amount of money and has a full No Trade Clause. At this point, with the relationship as soured as it is on both sides, I’m sure he’d be as willing to waive that clause just as the team would be willing to take on whatever cash it would take to get him in another environment. You have to figure, the only reason why he’s still here isn’t some obligation to the type of fan who only clings to the old timers like he and Ichiro and the ghost of Ken Griffey Jr., but because no other team would have Felix in this current incarnation. MAYBE, if he flashes some of that old swagger for long enough in the early portion of this season, some playoff-starved team with pitching issues might take a flier on a rejuvenated vet. But, I wouldn’t count on it.
I can already see how this is going to end. It’s not with some triumphant return to glory. It’s not by the Mariners saving a few shekels or weaseling a low-level prospect away from another team. It’ll happen sometime in late April or early May. It’ll follow yet another disaster of a start. He won’t be offered a role in the bullpen; he certainly won’t transition into a full time closer like so many erstwhile greats before him. He won’t be granted a stint on the Injured List to clear his head or give some arm “injury” a chance to heal.
He’s going to be DFA’d.
He’ll be dropped to the wolves, he’ll find no takers for his salary as it’s currently constructed, and the Mariners will end up paying all but a pro-rated veteran’s minimum as some other also-ran gives him a change of scenery to see if there’s anything left in the tank. And the 33 year old baseball player will throw his first pitch for an organization outside of the Mariners’ purview since he turned 16 years of age. Think about THAT; he’s been with the Mariners’ organization longer than he HASN’T been with the Mariners’ organization. It’s going to be weird and depressing and ultimately a relief.
I hope he never leaves. But, failing that, I hope he leaves as soon as possible, finds success with another team, and gets his first-ever start in the post-season. I hope he finds a way to move on and I hope we find a way to move on. Regardless, I’ll be rooting for him every step of the way.
I’m a Felix Hernandez fan first, and a Mariners fan second. I’m one of a dying breed around these parts. I’ll cherish every moment like it’s my last, because at any moment it very well could be.