PEORIA, Ariz. -- On April 4, Felix Hernandez will start his eighth consecutive Opening Day game for the Seattle Mariners. Four days later, he turns 30, and while he’s not old even by baseball standards, he has made 334 regular-season starts in the majors, surpassed 2,200 innings and thrown 34,519 pitches.
He’s nearly five years younger than Adam Wainwright but has pitched 693 more innings. Jake Peavy debuted more than three years before Hernandez; however, the Venezuelan has pitched more innings. Since Hernandez's first full season in 2006, only Justin Verlander has thrown more pitches.
Watching Hernandez pitch on a cloudless, 83-degree day in Peoria, with the nameplate on his teal Mariners uniform top gleaming in the sun and a large number of fans wearing “HERNANDEZ” jerseys or T-shirts, you can’t help but wonder: How many pitches does he have left in that right arm?
It’s been a long time since he was that flame-throwing rookie or the chunky sophomore who hit 97, 98, sometimes 99 on the radar gun. He’s a trimmed-down veteran now, and his style has changed as much as his body-fat percentage. When he first came up, he wore his pant legs down to the tops of his shoes. Now he wears the pants just below the knees, showing off his socks and calves.
But the pitching motion is the same picture of perfection, undoubtedly one reason he hasn’t sustained any significant injury. From the windup, he has the slight torso twist, not as exaggerated as Johnny Cueto or Luis Tiant back in the day, but just enough that it gives him a little different look than most pitchers. From the stretch, he starts with his hands at his chin, takes a sigh and a pause, drops his glove a few inches to his chest while making a quick few taps with his front left toe as he comes into the set position.
On this day against the Chicago White Sox, he didn’t appear to have his A stuff, maybe hitting 91 mph a few times with his fastball, but he threw a lot of fastballs and held the White Sox scoreless for six innings. He was efficient enough that he went an extra inning beyond the pregame plan of five. “They asked me if I could pitch one more and I said, 'Sure.' It's getting close to Opening Day, so it means a lot."
He benefited from a couple of hard line-drive outs. In the second inning, the White Sox stranded a runner at third when Dioner Navarro lined out to right fielder Franklin Gutierrez. Hernandez walked slowly back to the dugout and waited at the steps to give a little fist-bump to Gutierrez. The ball was hit hard but it was a routine catch for Gutierrez. Maybe Felix is just happy to have a better outfield defense behind him this season. In the fifth inning, Austin Jackson smoked one, but right to shortstop Luis Sardinas.
Hernandez finished with 80 pitches but only three strikeouts. On Twitter, Mariners fans were somewhat concerned about his fastball velocity, but if you look at the velocity readings at the Brooks Baseball site, Hernandez never maxes out in March. I don’t think Mariners fans have anything to worry about in that regard; wait until late April or early May before stressing out.
Plus, Felix obviously navigates his way through games these days, relying more on location and outthinking opposing hitters than on just blowing them away with his velocity. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Hernandez's average fastball velocity of 91.8 mph in 2015 ranked 40th out of 78 qualified starters. Back in 2009, the first year of ESPN data, he ranked eighth among starters at 94.0.
So he’s not that guy anymore. He’s also coming off his highest ERA since 2007, although some of that 3.53 mark can be attributed to that atrocious Mariners defense that ranked 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved. But it’s also true that his walk rate was up and his strikeout rate was down from 2014. His home runs allowed were up, but that might have simply been some bad luck. He allowed home runs on 10.7 percent of his fly balls; he hadn’t been above 6.7 percent in the previous seven seasons.
At least we head into 2016 assuming he's not that guy anymore. His unhittable changeup became a little more hittable in 2015 (.610 OPS versus .392 in 2014). Was that because there wasn’t enough separation between his fastball and the hard changeup that sits in the upper 80s? A few more left up in the zone? The deep-dive data like spin rate and movement don’t reveal anything obvious, so it appeared to be a location thing:
More precision on his changeup will certainly be a key for Hernandez, who averaged just 6.5 innings per start in 2015, his lowest since 2008, when he was 22. He said he’s right where he wants, with one more spring training start remaining.
Then he’ll be back out there in Texas, facing the Rangers. It will be another new-look Mariners team. He’ll likely be working with his sixth different Opening Day catcher, fifth different shortstop, sixth different center fielder. Even from just two years ago, the Mariners have turned over the roster, except for Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano, which tells us how long Hernandez has been the one constant in a sea of despair. Mariners fans know all too well that he has never pitched in a postseason game. Let’s hope he gets there while there’s still some magic left in that arm.