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A Tale of Two Aces

Félix Hernández and Justin Verlander's shared history, and possible future success?

From the first Félix vs Verlander match up in 2006
From the first Félix vs Verlander match up in 2006
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of xFIP, it was the age of ERA, it was the epoch of Robinson Cano, it was the epoch of Shawn O’Malley, it was the season of dingers, it was the season of TOOTBLANs, it was the spring of minor league success, it was the winter of injuries, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to the playoffs, we were all going direct to the cellar of the AL West- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest Twitter personalities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Tonight, on this hallowed Sweepsmas Eve, we’ll see a 2011 marquee-worthy match up as Justin Verlander faces off against Félix Hernández. For two men from starkly different backgrounds, their careers have followed surprisingly similar trajectories. Both made their major league debuts in 2005, with Felix’s coming exactly one month after Verlander’s, and have remained loyal to the teams that first drafted them. As the venerable Scott Weber noted, in his 2013 contract breakdown, Félix was the highest paid pitcher in history for a mere six weeks until the Tigers signed Verlander to a deal worth $5 million more. They are both Cy Young Award winners, and have been teammates for the All Star Game four times over. Oddly, despite playing in the American League for the last 12 years, the two have only faced each other thrice. Let’s break those down, briefly.

April 23, 2006 in a 6-4 Tigers victory at Safeco Field.

In what would eventually become a theme throughout Félix’s career, he went seven innings and gave up only one earned run, but was saddled with the loss. Verlander also gave up one run through seven, but had two walks and only three strikeouts for the night.

May 31, 2008 in a 5-0 Mariners win in Seattle.

Both starters lasted seven innings again but Verlander struggled, giving up four runs on eight hits. Meanwhile Félix started a shut-out that Brandon Morrow and JJ Putz (love ya, JJ!) completed. The Mariners would win only 60 other games that season and please, Nathan, don’t ever make me go back into the 2008 Fangraphs page ever again.

April 17, 2009 in a 6-3 Mariners victory, once again at Safeco.

It was Félix’s turn to struggle this time, as he was pulled after giving up three earned runs in six innings, and yet Verlander struggled more, making it through seven and a third innings but allowing five runs.

Over seven years have passed since Félix and Verlander last faced each other, which makes it especially difficult to guess what can be expected from tonight's game. The big story surrounding this fourth match-up is, of course, a narrative about fallen stars. In his age 29 season we’ve seen the King made mortal, and it hasn’t been pretty. I won’t waste much time talking about the darkness of declining velocity and loss of control, especially because we’ve already been down that dreary path. Instead, I’d like to hunt for a sliver of silver lining and, perhaps, that can be found in looking at Justin Verlander’s last few years. 2014 and 2015 both saw Verlander sidelined by injuries and struggling in his starts, coupled by a noticeable decrease in velocity. However, by the end of 2015 his ERA had dropped down to 2.27 for his last 14 starts, and it seemed that he would follow the Path of the Aging Ace and utilize his secondary pitches to remain effective. This season Verlander has put up his highest K/9 since 2009 but, most surprisingly, his velocity has actually increased to the point where he’s back to averaging around 94 MPH since the start of June.

I’m no expert on pitching mechanics (though I’m hoping to learn more in the future), and therefore have little to go off of, when it comes to speculating about how Verlander managed this, but seeing a 33 year old guy with an injury history increase his velocity and become an effective starter once again offers a little bit of hope for Félix’s future.

“It is a far, far better thing that [we] do, than [we] have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that [we] go to than [we] have ever known.”