The hype came first.
The rumblings could be heard from afar — from Venezuela, from Everett and San Antonio and Tacoma — of a mythical talent on the rise.
A Mariners minor-league pitching instructor, Pat Rice, saw Felix Hernandez throw at age 16 and wrote on his report that the kid — a high-school sophomore — had Hall of Fame talent.
Three avid baseball fans who had just started a Mariners blog called USS Mariner caught on to Hernandez’s burgeoning magic when he was in Class A ball. Scouts were starting to rave; salivate, actually. The word-of-mouth was viral, even as social media was in its infancy. One of the USS Mariner bloggers, Jason Michael Barker, now a chef in Georgia, became the first to dub the prodigy “King Felix” in an email to his buddies. Dave Cameron debuted the moniker in a USS Mariner blog post in July 2003.
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On Aug. 4, 2005, as the anticipation among Mariners fans built to feverish levels, Hernandez made his major-league debut in Detroit. King Felix was 19, with swagger, bushy hair and a fastball that touched 99 mph.
“He was a young fireballer that came up and was supposed to be the second coming,’’ said Willie Bloomquist, his teammate then and now.
Ten seasons have passed, and the hype has been transformed into wondrous achievement. Oh, the fastball has lost a few miles per hour, but the legend of Felix Hernandez, as he heads off to his fifth All-Star Game on Tuesday — most likely to be the starting pitcher for the American League — has never been stronger. Nor has his connection to Seattle fans, who revere Hernandez for his loyalty to the Mariners. Twice he has bypassed opportunities to hit the open market as a free agent, saying repeatedly that he loves it here too much to leave. And meaning it.
“We’ve seen a lot of these kids come down the road, and seen a lot of them come and go,’’ said former Mariner Jamie Moyer. “But in Felix, it’s obvious you see someone with a lot of passion, a lot of heart and desire, a lot of love for the organization he plays in, the city, the fans. … It’s really a breath of fresh air to watch him.”
Perhaps his greatest feat, a decade later, is this: Hernandez not only embraced the hype and didn’t let it overwhelm him, like so many other phenoms; he exceeded it.
“The first few years were a little rough as he went through an early career transition,’’ said Cameron, now managing editor of the baseball analytical website FanGraphs. “The last few years have been even better than we could have imagined. He’s a Hall of Fame pitcher; you can’t expect more than that from any prospect.”
And somewhere along the line, King Felix became embedded in the fabric of Seattle, a figure revered as much for his personal attributes as his mound skills. While other Mariners superstars left town for brighter pastures — Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, even Ichiro — Hernandez has stayed, like the equally beloved Edgar Martinez.
Sure, he was paid handsomely to do so, signing a five-year, $78 million deal in January 2010, and a seven-year, $175 million extension in February 2013. That’s when a tearful Hernandez vowed, to cheering fans and Mariners workers who greeted him as he got off the elevator before his news conference, “I’m not going to disappoint anybody.”
In both instances, Hernandez shunned free agency, and the chance for an even bigger payday. Last spring, as negotiations intensified, Hernandez’s marching orders to his agent, Scott Pucino, were to get a deal done with the Mariners, and to include a no-trade clause to ensure that he can’t be dealt.
“He doesn’t want to leave,’’ said Pucino. “Felix is a very, very loyal person. Look, he was signed by the Mariners at age 16. They gave him an opportunity at 19, and he’s never looked back.”
Hernandez has forged a happy life here with his wife and two young children. And he’s fully bought into the rebuilding plan of general manager Jack Zduriencik, ever faithful that team success looms just around the corner.
Only former teammate Aaron Harang among active pitchers, with 337, has made more career starts than Hernandez’s 288 without appearing in the postseason. The Mariners now own the second wild-card berth in the American League, but they still must navigate through 2½ potentially treacherous months to get there.
“We’re playing really good baseball,’’ Hernandez said. “That’s what I want. I want a playoff here in Seattle.”
He’s even allowed himself to dream, in idle moments, of what it would be like to take the mound for a postseason start at a roaring Safeco Field. The Mariners haven’t been in the playoffs since 2001.
“That will be awesome. That will be great,’’ he said. “I’ll probably throw 97 again because of the adrenaline.”
Statistically, this might be Hernandez’s best season, perhaps putting him en route to a second Cy Young award. There is, of course, a wistful undertone to Hernandez’s Seattle reign, even beyond the lack of team success that has kept him largely out of the national spotlight.
Pitching behind an annually anemic offense, Hernandez has been denied an untold number of wins simply because the Mariners have not scored enough runs to support his brilliant pitching. This year alone, Hernandez has pitched three games of seven innings in which he’s given up one or zero runs and yet came away with a no-decision, and another in which he gave up one run in 81/3 innings and was saddled with a loss.
Over the course of his career, Hernandez has pitched 142 games in which he’s worked at least seven innings and given up two or fewer runs — more than anyone in baseball over that span — and yet came away without a victory 56 times (14 losses, 42 no-decisions).
Cameron crunched the numbers, however, and determined that Hernandez could be expected to have just 12 more wins, approximately, based on historical data. He did this by looking at pitchers since 1985 — roughly when the modern bullpen came into effect — who had an adjusted ERA in Hernandez’s range. Those 346 pitchers were awarded a victory 46 percent of the time; Hernandez has been credited with a win in 42 percent of the games he’s started. Bumping that up to 46 percent would put his total at 132 — 12 more than he has.
It’s been incredibly frustrating to Mariners fans, at those times, to watch Hernandez pitch his heart out and go unrewarded. But one of the most endearing elements of the Hernandez legacy is that he has never complained, never sold out his teammates.
“It’s baseball; it happens,’’ Hernandez said, reiterating his typical response. “If you get mad for not scoring runs, and the next day they score 12, maybe you give up 13. What are you going to say? You can’t worry about that. You have to just go out there and pitch.”
Modern baseball analysis has downplayed the importance of a pitcher’s wins because so much is out of his control. Hernandez won a Cy Young in 2010 with just 13 victories, fewest ever for a starter, so it can be overcome; for many traditional observers, however, a pitcher’s record still carries weight.
Cameron looks deeper, and settles on this stat as his favorite in the Hernandez canon: An earned-run average adjusted for ballpark and league — “ERA minus” is the official FanGraphs term — that is 24 percent better than average over his career, and 46 percent better than average this season.
The former stat, he points out, puts Hernandez in the company of a Hall of Famer like Tom Glavine. And the latter?
“It’s peak Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax,’’ he said.
Lloyd McClendon, the seventh Mariners manager to be eternally grateful to have Hernandez at his disposal, doesn’t much care for the arcane statistical evidence. He doesn’t need validation for what he knows viscerally from a lifetime in baseball:
That Hernandez, at age 28, has been worth every bit of the hype that still attaches to him, giving Hernandez the mysterious aura of a baseball savant working in relative anonymity.
“He’s like a good wine: He just gets better with age,’’ McClendon said. “He’s special. He’s in a different class. And not many in that class, either.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry