Felix Hernandez is, for the moment, the highest paid pitcher to ever toe the rubber. Starting pitching is the basic building block of all winning teams. Young, durable and highly talented starting pitchers are the rarest of commodities, and therefore the most expensive asset for any owner and GM.
Whether one thinks Felix “the King” Hernandez was worth his ransom or not is simply an opinion. And you know the old saying about opinions, they’re like rear ends, everybody has one. For the sake of this piece, lets look at only facts before we decide.
Since 1960, a total of 15 pitchers profiled similarly to Felix Hernandez using four common statistics: IP (innings pitched), K/9 (strikeouts per nine IP), ERA (earned run average) and WAR (wins above replacement). For the sake of comparison, the pitchers had to meet these criteria by their 28th birthday. Hernandez will turn 27 on April 8, 2013.
IP: 1400 plus
K/9: 7.0 plus
ERA: 3.50 or less
WAR: minimum of 25.0
Felix Hernandez stat line: 1620.1 IP 8.26 K/9 3.22 ERA 38.3 WAR
The good news for Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners organization is that many of the pitchers who met these criteria had long and brilliant careers. The following Hall of Fame pitchers who did so by their 28th birthdays were Bert Blyleven, Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins and Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan. Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez also met the criteria, Clemens is not in the Hall due to PED suspicion and Martinez will likely be a first ballot Cooperstown inductee.
On the other hand, the bad news are the names that meet the criteria but whose careers fall short. These names are the cautionary tales, the nightmare scenario for fans in the Emerald City; Dwight Gooden, Sam McDowell, Kevin Appier, Johan Santana, Jim Maloney, Jose Rijo and Mario Soto. These pitchers were all young studs, aces and future stars who never fulfilled their promise, mostly due to injury (Dwight Gooden for other reasons).
The jury is still out on his contemporary Matt Cain.
Of all the success stories, Hernandez seems to be closest to Fergie Jenkins. Jenkins was 115-81 with a 2.99 ERA through the season he turned 28. Over the next seven years of his career he would win 116 games, but began to fade near the end. He would finish his career with 284 wins and a 3.34 ERA and is a Hall of Famer.
The King also profiles a bit like Steve Carlton, who had a similar ERA (3.02) and WAR (41.7). “Lefty” was 117-92 the season that ended during his 28th birthday. Over the next seven years he pitched at least 247 innings and won 132 games for the Phillies, going 24-9 in the World Series winning 1980 season. He finished his career with 329 wins and a 3.22 ERA.
Jim Maloney’s 1623 IP, 3.12 ERA, 8.22 K/9 and 35.1 WAR were eerily similar to the numbers of Hernandez. Zduriencik might spit out his Starbucks latte when he realizes that Maloney won a total of 12 more games and pitched less than 250 innings after his 28th birthday. Jose Rijo led the Reds to a 1990 World Series upset of the Oakland A’s. Through his 28th year he had 1544.2 IP, 7.71 K/9 and a 3.13 ERA. After that Rijo would win just 16 games, pitching only 335 innings.
Kevin Appier also profiles similarly. His ERA of 3.28 and 38.6 WAR put him in close company with the King. Unfortunately, Appier tallied just 68 wins in the seven years after he turned 28. He would finish his career with an ERA of 3.74 and 6.9 K/9.
So is the Felix Hernandez worth all the money. Hindsight is always 20/20, we won’t know for sure until 2019. Historically, it’s a bit of a crapshoot, of course. the act of throwing a ball overhand is a violent, unnatural motion, many bodies have a finite number of fastballs and curveballs in them. But as the statistics prove, many of the truly great pitchers have been able to shoulder similar loads to Hernandez and have Hall of Fame careers. However, history is also littered with talented pitchers who were not able to finish off what were brilliant beginnings to their careers.