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40 in 40: Chris Flexen has earned our respect

How the Buddha’s teachings can guide our response to the Mariners’ dependable starter turned long reliever

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Seattle Mariners Lindsey Wasson-USA TODAY Sports

The root of suffering, according to the Buddha, is grasping for permanence. All is impermanent, and so the way to be free from suffering is to release the grasping.

The trouble is: some things are so sweet, and we want them to stay. I don’t want to remember that Julio Rodríguez, the Mariners, heck, baseball itself is a fleeting gift that cannot last, no matter how long a contract he signs or how solid a statue we build. When things are as good as these, it’s easy to forget they’ll be gone. When they’re gone, the wishing they could have stayed hurts.

I’ll think about this again in August when we gather to enshrine King Felix in “permanent” Mariners memory; inevitably, we’ll remember the pain of watching his reign dwindle and wishing it could last just long enough to culminate in a playoff start. I remember watching this hype video last October and feeling the exquisite pain of grasping return, as the desire for permanence swelled:

But this 40-in-40 entry is not about Felix, no matter how much I wish it could be again. Instead, it’s about the dilemma we face when asked to invest emotionally in something of whose impermanence we are constantly reminded.

Chris Flexen has earned our emotional investment for his work in the 2021 season, when he fortified an inconsistent rotation across 179 innings, no time on the injured list, and several dominant outings; he was ultimately named Mariners Pitcher of the Year. Coming off that season, Connor wrote about him in last year’s 40-in-25 as a “stabilizing force” in the rotation. In 2022 Flexen moved to a long relief role in the bullpen in August, having shown significantly less dominance than the year below. Over the year he threw 137 innings, fourth most for an M’s pitcher. Each of those innings in the last two seasons is an investment in the team, an investment that earned him both the 2023 season in his contract and, I would argue, investment in return from the fans, for carrying the team across the toughest stretches to where we find ourselves today.

And yet it’s hard to invest in Chris Flexen as Mariners fans when the news is filled with “Mariners Getting Trade Interest in Chris Flexen” and “Will the Mariners Trade Chris Flexen?” and “Yankees Potential Trade Target: Chris Flexen.” I swear every other trade proposal I’ve seen on twitter in the last week has involved Flexen, and with each non-Mariners pitcher whose injuries look to shorten or erase their season (Frankie Montas being the headliner), the rumors only fly faster. If you’re looking for detailed speculation about possible trade scenarios, I would simply direct you to the Google search results for “Chris Flexen trade.” I’ll wait here.

Will Flexen be traded? I imagine that depends on the return offer. Should Flexen be traded? Same answer. On the one hand, with offense being the gap the M’s still need to close and the news of Tramell’s recent surgery, even a low-to-mid-impact bat could be more impactful than Flexen’s innings over the season. On the other, the Mariners almost certainly can’t remain as lucky with pitcher health in 2023 as they were in 2022, when no starting pitcher hit the Injured List all year (!). Though Flexen is unlikely to start the year in the M’s rotation, he’s one of the two most ready to slot in if injury requires.

And of course, when it comes to impermanence, there’s the matter of Flexen’s consistency itself. Between 2021 and 2022, Flexen’s stuff became quite a bit less effective, with barrel rate increasing significantly for all four of his major pitches, and chase rate down for three of the four.

Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant

What does this mean for 2023? Nothing yet. Flexen’s pitches were less successful against opposing batters in 2022 than 2021; this may be due to age-related decline, but even there pitchers can adjust and recover for a time. It’s a reminder, though, that even if Flexen remains a Mariner for the duration of the 2023 season, his effectiveness is far from guaranteed. The things for which he has earned our investment may or may not continue, as age drags us all onward, sparing none.

This is all to say that we need harbor no illusions of Chris Flexen’s permanence. We need harbor no illusions of our own permanence, either, but that’s a more difficult matter. And so let’s not ask that he remain or remain the same, nor disdain him when he doesn’t, but cheer for him as he has earned for as many innings as he gives us — and may they be many.

Chicago White Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images