My mind keeps clinging to April 10th, when Felix pitched seven strong against Oakland, and struck out ten. With mild focus I can easily recall April 24th, 2015, when Felix turned Safeco Field into a Bacchanal as he destroyed Minnesota. I remember watching the ease with which he threw that night, retiring the first fourteen hitters in a row, me putting down my beer, and thinking I was going to have to write a recap for the first pitcher in history to throw two perfect games. In the end he settled for a shutout. Only five singles kept Felix from history that day.
That Felix was, is still, so ingrained in me that for the first two months of this year I expected him to return. There was a nagging injury, or a mild mechanical flaw, that had led to his decline in 2015. There had to be. Sure pitcher velocity and stuff declines with age, but this was Felix. He wasn't going to stop being an ace, it wasn't time.
Even when he went down with a calf injury at the end of May, I convinced myself he would come back anew, refreshed, and whole. I'm so old, and know so much better, but in baseball I let myself put the cynicism and realism aside and try to believe in the best. It's probably the only place I still do that.
Unfortunately in two starts back from the DL Felix has continued to look like a shadow of his old self. In two starts he has allowed three home runs, all on upper 80's/low 90's pitches with horrendous location. He has allowed eight runs in 12.2 IP, and only BABIP good fortune with RISP has prevented that from being much more. The saddest thing about it is that it represents nothing but more of the same. Felix Hernandez in 2016 has been reduced, not to rubble, but to one of the most sadly adequate descriptions of any major league pitcher: Inning Eater. Let's play a bad, evil game:
Pitcher A: 75.2 IP, 70 H, 35 R, 9 HR, 29 BB, 58 SO, 4.54 FIP
Pitcher B: 105 IP, 115 H, 61 R, 18 HR, 33 BB, 73 SO, 5.00 FIP
Pitcher A fastball velocity: 90.2 MPH
Pitcher B fastball velocity: 90.3 MPH
Pitcher A is Felix Hernandez, the greatest Mariner of this millennium, and pitcher B is Wade Miley. Now, a few things here. Wade Miley is not as good as Felix Hernanez, today. Felix has better stuff, more pitches, more movement. My comparison is not to say they are the same. This is simply acknowledging what has happened this year, and a quick and dirty look at some basic metrics.
To get a better understanding of Felix's struggles, let's look at some splits, and fancy charts, graphs, and pictures:
0-2 count - .171 wOBA
1-2 count - .194 wOBA
0-2 count - ..284 wOBA
1-2 count - .246 wOBA
Felix's reduced velocity and command has lead to an increased difficulty in putting away hitters with two strikes. This issue was pronounced in last night's three run first inning. Gregory Polanco hit a 3-2 fastball to center field for a home run, and, after hitting Andrew McCutchen, he had Starling Marte down 0-2, before allowing a triple. Again, reduced velocity and poor command. Here's the set up:
"Ball down please" - Mike Zunino
"Nah" - Felix
Felix's raw stuff has eroded to the point where his mistakes have gone from being uncomfortable foul or ground balls, to getting blasted all over the field. The margin for success is so narrow, and once a pitcher is on the wrong side of it, it's stark. Francisco Liriano's home run is another example:
And the pitch:
The difference in hittability of Felix's stuff, of course, goes deeper than these two recent examples. Felix's BABIP by zone from 2014:
Even balls down the middle do relatively little damage. Whereas 2016:
Yowzers look at all those pretty colors.
The good news is that the Mariners do not need Felix Hernandez: Ace, but they very much need Felix Hernandez:Right-handed, and far sexier Wade Miley. Last night's game served as an excellent reminder that this is not the Mariners for whom Felix wasted his prime years. Given six non-disastrous innings, more days than not, the Mariner offense will score enough to win. This team needs innings of competence, and not having to wish and prayer their way through Adrian Sampson (RIP), Wade LeBlanc, and all the rest. Of this yeoman's task, Felix is still more than capable.
It's probably going to take quite awhile for me to fully reconcile myself to Felix's prime years being gone. Ever after spending the time writing this piece there's a small, very irrational, very hopeful part of me that insists that after 2016 he can re-tool, and learn to pitch at an elite level with his more pedestrian collection of pitches. But the reality is that is unlikely. Past experience says that we've seen the last of roaring, world-stomping, perfect game throwing, appointment-viewing Felix Hernandez, and we're going to have to be ok with that. Patrick Dubuque summed it up perfectly:
Looking forward to the point when Mariners fans decide whether they like Felix because he's Felix or if they like him because he's talented— Patrick Dubuque (@euqubud) July 26, 2016
If there is one athlete in this city who has earned my undying affection, it is Felix Hernandez. Many fans are more pragmatic, and find it easier to simply move on. But I'll let myself hope, however stupid it is, that greatness remains within his grasp. If I'm wrong? Well, there are worse things that being wrong I suppose. Felix never gave up on us, the least I can do is return the favor. Long live the King.