Felix Hernandez changing offseason preparation after another down season

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Felix Hernandez
OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Felix Hernandez /

Another disappointing season for Felix Hernandez will lead to offseason changes, as Hernandez still thinks he can be the pitcher he was in the past.

The Seattle Mariners want to believe. King Felix wants to believe. And perhaps more than anyone, the fans want to believe. The Mariners still promote “King Felix Night” for Felix Hernandez’s starts at Safeco Field. Fans buy their tickets, get their bright yellow shirts with the King of Hearts on the front, their trusty “K” cards, and shout “K! K! K! K! K! K! K!” whenever Hernandez gets two strikes on the batter.

On any other night, its just section 150, the last seating area inside the foul pole down the left field line. But when Hernandez toes the rubber, it transforms into the King’s Court, full of excited fans rooting for the veteran Mariner pitcher. Each game, the fan with the best costume is awarded a tremendous gift, the mighty turkey leg, with Safeco’s executive chef doing the honors. It’s a party, with King Felix as the gracious host.

Unfortunately, King Felix Nights aren’t what they used to be. The fans still show up and cheer for Hernandez, but he’s struggling to fulfill his end of the bargain. Away from King’s Court in his start in Oakland on September 25, Hernandez had a good outing, allowing just one run in six innings. He could have started one more game but the team chose to shut him down and end his disappointing season on a high note (and it was a very disappointing season).

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Not only was Hernandez limited to 86 2/3 innings because of injuries, he also had his highest ERA since 2006 and the highest FIP of his career (Fielding Independent Pitching, which counts the three things a pitcher controls the most—strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed). Of those three outcomes, it was the home run that was his major bugaboo.

In a year in which more home runs were hit by MLB hitters than ever before, Hernandez allowed 17 long balls in 16 starts, for a career worst 1.8 HR per nine innings. This is a guy who went eight straight years from 2007 to 2014 in which he never allowed more than one home run per nine innings. Now he ranks in the bottom third in home run rate among starting pitchers with more than 80 innings pitched.

With two years and nearly $55 million remaining on his contract, Hernandez is heading into the offseason with a different plan than last year. According to this article by Shannon Drayer, some felt Hernandez did too much upper body work last winner, which reduced his flexibility. Hernandez said, “My offseason work, it did pay off. I do feel really good. The shoulder problems, it happens. It’s baseball; I am not a kid anymore. I just have to find a different routine. Not as much upper body, not too much weight.”

That’s a confusing quote. Hernandez believes his offseason work paid off, yet he started fewer games than he has since his rookie year. He also acknowledges that he wants to find a different routine. At 31 years old, Felix needs to make some kind of adjustment because he doesn’t have the stuff he used to. Early in his career, his fastball averaged in the mid-90s. He averaged 94.1 mph in his 2010 Cy Young Award season and 92.4 when he finished second in CY Young voting in 2014. He was also throwing a hard change-up, usually just under 90 mph.

This was peak Felix. It was the year after Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award that the team created the King’s Court and fans in t-shirts holding “K” cards filled section 150 for all of his home starts. From 2009 to 2014, he averaged 232 innings per year with a 2.73 ERA. The only two pitchers in baseball worth more Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) than Felix over this six-year period were Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. During this stretch, he pitched the 23rd perfect game in MLB history in front of the King’s Court.

In 2015, he slipped a bit, finishing with a 3.53 ERA as his fastball velocity dropped to 91.8 mph. Over the last two seasons, his fastball averaged 90.5 and his change-up velocity was down 2-3 mph. Two miles per hour may not seem like much, but the results are clear. At 90.5 mph the last two seasons, Felix has seen his ERA increase to 3.82 and 4.36 and he’s had the only two seasons of his career in which his FIP was over 4.00 (4.63 in 2016, 5.01 in 2017).

Even though King’s Court is still a hoppin’ place when Felix is on the mound, the King is no longer pitching like royalty. Where he once mingled with the likes of Kershaw and Verlander, over the last two years he’s been about as valuable as Mike Leake and Josh Tomlin. He’s not an ace or even a number two. He might be a number three or number four starter at this point.

In the Drayer article, Hernandez talked about getting strikeouts versus inducing contact. He said, “I love to strike out people. I’m trying to get to 3000.” On the strikeout front, one positive note from this season was an increase in strikeout rate from the year before. He’s still not striking out batters like he did when he was young, but at least it was better than last year. He also went from the worst walk rate in his career in 2016 to a walk rate that was comparable to his best seasons.

Those are good signs, but with an increased home run rate and a declining ground ball rate, along with a below-average fastball, Hernandez’ margin for error is slim. He still wants to be the same pitcher he once was, but it won’t be easy. He said, “I am just trying to be myself, what I used to be two years ago, with the same mechanics. That is going to be a big focus.”

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It could be mechanics, but it could just be age. Hernandez will be 32 next April. As pitchers age, they lose ticks off their fastball. We’ll see how his new offseason changes turn out, but at some point Felix may want to stop trying to be who he once was and embrace the pitcher he now is. That’s what pitchers in their 30s have to do, adjust to diminished “stuff” and evolve.