Felix Hernandez and his new blonde chin hair spoke to the media on Friday after the Mariners' first workout for pitchers and catchers. He discussed the hair, the playoffs and health.
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s been 48 hours since his arrival to the Mariners’ spring training complex and yet it’s still the one of the most popular subjects in camp. Even on the first official day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, the new look of Felix Hernandez is still a favorite topic of debate, insults and speculation.
Even manager Scott Servais couldn’t avoid it in his first meeting with the media.
“No surprises other than Felix’s hair,” Servais said with a laugh early Friday morning. “I thought that was outstanding.”
“Outstanding” is an interesting word for Felix Hernandez’s new follicle expression.
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Of his array of appearances over his career and there have been many, this is the most different. The top of his mass of naturally curly hair has been dyed blonde with natural black hair remaining on the sides and back. And to match, Hernandez decided to die his unruly mess of chin hair, now more than an inch in length, blonde as well.
“This,” he said grabbing the chin hair,” was like four days ago when I was in Seattle. The hair was a long time ago.”
“I was tired of seeing my black hair in the mirror all the time, so I decided to go blonde,” he said. “I’m just trying something different.”
And it’s here to stay.
“Yeah, I’m going to keep it for the entire season,” he said.
It seems like a bold statement unlikely to be fulfilled. But if Hernandez pitches well, it’s a certainty that it will remain.
Beyond the cosmetic change from last year and years past, Hernandez is looking for some changes on the field as well.
Last season was one of frustration for the Mariners’ ace. Besides the team struggling to another losing record – the ninth since 2003, Hernandez wasn’t pleased with his own results. He finished with an 18-9 record and 3.53 ERA in 31 starts. He reached the 200-inning mark for the eighth consecutive season. In his 201 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 191 batters and walked 58.
Most players would be happy with such numbers, but Hernandez also got shelled in four starts, including one where he never made it out of the first inning in Houston and another where he gave up 10 runs in 2 1/3 innings.
It was embarrassing to him.
In his final session with the media in 2015 having been shut down before his final start, he labeled his entire season performance as “inconsistent,” admitting to mechanical issues with his delivery and lost command of his best pitch – the changeup.
The offseason hasn’t changed those thoughts.
“I was,” he said when the word inconsistent is uttered. “I’ve worked on my mechanics a little bit. I did the same physical program I’ve done the last two years. I can’t wait to throw my bullpen and see how it feels.”
Just over a month from his 30th birthday on April 8, Hernandez was adamant that he feels healthy and strong as he heads into 12th big league season.
“I know you guys said last year at the end of the year I was hurt, but I wasn’t,” he said. “I’m fine. Physically, I’m fine. I’m ready to throw.”
Well, it wasn’t so much saying as inquiring or speculating because of the inconsistent performances.
It was a former Mariners’ coach that had the most to say about his health. After former outfield coach Andy Van Slyke blasted Robinson Cano on a St. Louis sportstalk radio show, labeling Cano’s season one of the worst performances he’d seen in 20 years of baseball, he also lamented the health of Hernandez and it’s effect on the team. Van Slyke said that the Mariners’ ace was pitching with ulnar collateral ligament that had deteriorated by 25 percent and there was a general concern it could snap at any moment. Mariners’ head trainer Rick Griffin dismissed the comments in the offseason.
“All pitchers, especially those who have thrown 2,000 innings, have some damage in their ligament,” Griffin said. “He has not missed a start because of his elbow in the entire time he’s been here with us. We do everything we can to keep him on the field. I don’t know where that percent came from.”
The comments got back to Hernandez.
“No, no, not true,” he said. “I’m fine. He said a lot stuff that’s not true. “
But Servais wasn’t afraid to deliver a hard and real truth in the offseason to Hernandez. The sixth manager of Hernandez’s tenure in the big leagues pointed to the one thing that is missing from his impressive career resume, which features a 143-101 record, a career 3.11 ERA with 2,142 strikeouts in 2,262 1/3 innings pitched, six all-star games, the 2010 Cy Young award and millions of dollars in salary.
“Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs, and it’s time,” Servais said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get there. And he knows that as well. For a player to have that kind of career and to not have pitched in the playoffs yet, it’s up to us to make sure we get the pieces around him and it’s up to him to pull a few guys along with him. It’s going to be a joint effort.”
Besides personal performance, the dream stepping on the mound of a packed Safeco Field for a postseason start is what pushes Hernandez in his offseason workouts.
“It’s always motivating me every year, trying to do something special and make the playoffs,” he said. “It drives me crazy. I’ve never made the playoffs in the big leagues. I can’t wait to be there.”
But Hernandez and the Mariners still have all of spring training and the regular season to get through before that’s even a possibility. And it’s far from a given since the Mariners last the made playoffs in 2001 – the longest drought in baseball at 14 seasons.
He will use the same routine he’s used the past four seasons during spring. It means he’ll start throwing bullpens a little later than everyone else and make his first start in Cactus League play later as well.
“Next week I will throw my first bullpen and we’ll go from there,” he said. “Same routine that I’ve been using.”
It will set him up to be the opening day starter against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 4.
Asked if he’s ready to name Hernandez the opening day starter, Servais replied: “There’s a good shot. You can run with that if you want.”