Very close to exactly three years ago, the Mariners and Felix Hernandez made us all very happy. For a few who were able to keep rational thought at hand when it broke, the contract numbers were favorable. For most of us, we simply went nuts. All of us, to a human, will treasure this forever:
Big words, heart felt and sincere. For a city that at the time had precious little experience winning, and had seen stars and entire teams pick up and move elsewhere Felix will have our unrelenting devotion, for as long as he wears blue and Northwest Green.
There is nothing, and I mean nothing I want in sports more than to attend a playoff game at Safeco Field. I want to sit in the 300 section along first base as the sun sets. I want the Supreme Court, the indulgent version of the best promotion in baseball, and one that various teams have tried to Xerox, only to find their ink levels are dangerously low. I want Tom Hutyler: "And pitching tonight for your Seattle Mariners, number 34, Feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelix Hernandezzzzzzzzzz." I want that roar, that air that drips with anticipation and exultation in equal portion. I can see it.
Baseball is cruel like that. Dreams are easily conjured and just as easily whisked away. Felix Hernandez is our great prize, our jewel, our King. He is The One Who Stayed. He is also turning thirty in two months, and coming off arguably the worst year of his career. He is scheduled to make about $107 million dollars between now and 2020. He is a super car with 150,000 miles on the odometer.
Year after year pitcher after pitcher falls victim to attrition, and somehow Felix never faltered. In case 2015 made you forget here's the pitching leaders in fWAR for the 6 seasons between 2009-2014:
1) Clayton Kershaw - 36.9
2) Justin Verlander - 35.0
3) Felix Hernandez - 34.7
Felix's 2015 was a step back, in every sense. Lower K%, higher BB%, much higher HR/FB%, his highest FIP since 2007, etc. Still, in one of his worst seasons in the majors Felix still put up 2.8 fWAR, which from 2005-2015 is higher than all but 7 seasons from Mariner pitchers not named Felix Hernandez. Felix at his worst is still almost the very best the Mariners have to offer.
The easy, and terrifying comp for Felix is CC Sabathia. Both pitchers succeeded at a young age, and sustained their success remarkably well for a long period of time. Until they didn't. Sabathia's 2013 is the wrong kind of familiar to Felix's 2015, seeing similar metric drops and rises in all the bad ways. Sabathia of course has never bounced back, although it should be noted Sabathia in 2013 was more than 3 years older than 2015 Felix.
On the other, shinier side of the coin we can look to Zack Greinke. In 2009 Greinke won the Cy Young for Kansas City, posting an amazing 2.33 FIP and 8.6 fWAR. By 2013, his first year in Los Angeles, those numbers were 3.23 and 3.9, respectively. Still good numbers, to be sure, but no longer the elite stuff of his past. Greinke, like Felix, was seeing a steady decline in fastball velocity, and subsequent drop in K%. At 30, Greinke's career appeared to have entered its descent.
Last year of course Zack Greinke put up the 2nd best year of his career, nearly won another Cy Young, and left Los Angeles for Arizona and a LOT of money. The ability to adjust to ever changing abilities and circumstances is what turns a great career into a hall of fame one.
The brain is connected to the eyes, and so we should be master of what they show us. But we are not. My eyes tell me that last year Felix was everything I've come to expect him to be at the beginning of the year. The numbers confirm that. In April 2015, Felix had a 2.21 FIP, and struck out thirty-six batters while only walking six. My eyes tell me that he slipped against the Yankees on June 1st, and every start after they tell me his lower half looked wrong. He was constantly shifting, wincing, walking so slowly off the mound after every inning. The game looked like toil for him, for the first time I can remember.
My brain also knows that you can't just dismiss injuries as some static, temporal issue that gets cast aside after a certain amount of time. The injuries that can end careers often accumulate slowly, non-dramatically, over a period of many years. Being in my mid-30's I know that those issues grow exponentially in your body's 4th decade. My brain worries about CC Sabathia, about wasting all of Felix's greatness, and that his career will forever be remembered as a kind of noble tragedy.
But my brain also tells me that one down season in seven does not a decline make. It tells me that, even though he has a lot of mileage on his arm, and feels ancient, Felix is still younger than almost every pitcher to whom he is compared to, and that his prime could theoretically stretch for 3-5 more years. I know that he has already proven an ability to adapt to diminishing velocity, and that when healthy his changeup is still one of baseball's five best pitches. If Zack Greinke can grab a second wind in his early 30's, why not Felix?
My heart is also connected to my brain, and it remembers three years ago. It remembers August 12, 2012, the excruciating excellence of 2010, and the pudgy nineteen year old who struck out eleven Royals way back in his third major league start. It knows the past, and it fears and longs for the future in equal measure.
My heart tells me Sabathia and Greinke be dammed, there is only one Felix Hernandez. I'll close my eyes, and dream of the orange of an October sun, framing a sea of yellow at the corner of Edgar and Dave, and number 34 ambling slowly to the mound. All rise.