As the days get shorter and the scenery of the Pacific Northwest landscape turns from the nation's best kept secret to the constant drizzle that the nation knows we carry in our weathered souls, Seattle Mariners' fans have usually had to look elsewhere for things to root for as the door to the playoffs was generally shut around mid-June.
Last year was the exception to the rule. The Mariners played meaningful baseball later than they had in over a decade, and there was another race playing out -- Felix Hernandez and the chase for his second Cy Young award.
Both chases ended in disappointment. Our King fell just short of Corey Kluber by ten points, and had to settle for second, which in the world of Cy Young means you get nothing. King Felix's mantle would stay the same for another year.
Since he turned 23 (oh boy) in 2009, King Felix has received Cy Young votes in every year except for 2011 -- and serious contention for half of those years. When the Mariners gave us nothing to root for, the heart of the Mariners gave us someone -- and a concrete goal -- to aspire and hope for. Will Hernandez repeat that hope for this season? Short answer: most likely not, but crazier things have happened.
By most accounts, Hernandez is on track to turn in his worst performance since that 2011 season when he didn't even receive a Cy Young vote. But let's qualify that as well -- King Felix's worst year is still better than the best year of 90 percent of pitchers out there. Let's just put it all in a nice, easy to read table, starting with his breakout year in 2009.
So, definitely some great numbers, but probably not good enough numbers to warrant much conversation. Currently, according to fWAR, the King is 11th in the American League. Hernandez does have a couple of things going for him. He leads the AL in wins with 14. He is sixth in the league with 145 strikeouts. He is seventh in the league in ERA.
But those hard and old benchmarks that voters used to love using don't matter as much anymore, in large part thanks to Hernandez. In 2010, when Felix won the Cy Young with a mere 13 wins, cries of tragedy echoed from beat writers from New York City and Detroit about the highway robbery that had just occurred. How could Felix Hernandez and his lousy 13 wins mean he is a better pitcher than Justin Verlander's 18 wins, or CC Sabathia's 21 wins? That year, both Sabathia and Verlander pieced together fantastic seasons. But as we all know, by every meaningful metric, King Felix was better than those two. His only sin that year was being on the Mariners.
So now the game has changed. Things like wins don't matter very much. ERA still holds solid weight in the minds of voters, and right now Sonny Gray, the AL leader in ERA, is a full run better than Hernandez (2.06 to 3.11). Things like strikeouts, which also still matter for those voters, don't help Hernandez much either. He is nearly 50 behind Chris Sale.
There shouldn't be a repeat of 2011, however, where Felix doesn't finish anywhere in the race. Although Michael Pineda and Clay Buchholz have both been better than King Felix in terms of fWAR, both players have also dealt with injuries this year and have pitched in four or five less games than Hernandez.
Here are the top 11 pitchers in the AL and how this whole thing sit.
It is a crowded field and there are a lot of legitimate arguments to be made for any number of those guys. Let's say Hernandez has another eight starts to pitch before the season ends. That is still plenty of time to go on a well-timed hot-streak and pitch himself into Cy Young contention. There aren't a lot of "look at how this guy pitched his team into the playoffs" to go around this year. Price, Keuchel and Archer are the three pitchers on teams who are seriously in the playoff hunt.
The Mariners' playoff hopes aren't completely dead just yet, and neither are Felix's Cy Young hopes. A return to a dominating form for Felix towards the end of the season might just be enough to muddy those voting waters a bit and come away with his second Cy Young. And if not, at least it gives us something to root for.