At a time when the Mariners are trying to hammer into Hernandez that he is no longer the fireballing strikeout master of years past, it simply doesn’t make sense to encourage and promote that mindset.
While Felix Hernandez goes about the difficult job of re-inventing himself as a pitcher, those on the outside are undergoing an equally daunting challenge: Re-imagining The King.
It’s hard to simply erase the image of Felix at the top of his game, toying with hitters, wiping them out with that devastating, darting, dastardly changeup (or whatever you want to call it; even his catchers were never quite sure what it was, except deadly).
Hernandez provided some of the best memories in Mariners history. Those are indelible. But now, of course, it’s different. It has been awhile since Hernandez was dominant, except in sporadic bursts that make it even harder to accept the new normal.
Hernandez, at age 31 with nearly 2,500 innings logged, has to deal with that, and so do we. Yet auras die hard. Case in point was last Tuesday, Independence Day, when Hernandez was burned for six runs (five earned) in six innings in a 7-3 loss to Kansas City, raising his ERA to 5.04. That’s all jarring.
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“It’s not like it’s the way that it used to be where Felix could walk a couple of guys and wipe out the next three hitters,’’ Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said Friday, discussing the ongoing evolution of Hernandez. “We all know that’s not there. It’s not going to happen.”
Stottlemyre hastens to add, “But he can still be good. Really good. He can be great. He just has to do it a little different.”
Yeah, we’ve been hearing that for a while. Perhaps Hernandez has been humbled enough that he will truly buy in to the notion that he has to adjust his pitching style to accommodate for his lower velocity. When I posed that question to Stottlemyre, he paused for a long time.
“I mean, he hasn’t to me, and he’s not going to,’’ he said, finally. “I’m his coach. While he dumps a lot of stuff off on me, he knows he can still be great. And I think deep down he knows he doesn’t have the weapons he used to have. He’s said that to me.
“I don’t want it to deter him from still being a really good pitcher. He’s just going to have to do it different. He’s going to have to be a little more of a pitch-maker. The importance of getting in good counts, and executing and making pitches. Like all the other guys have to.”
Of course, Felix – who starts Sunday against the A’s — never used to be like all the other guys. He could aim his pitches down the middle, make the hitter commit, only to have the ball skitter out of the strike zone as the batter swung at nothing but air. Now they are laying off those pitches, and Hernandez has to learn, among other things, how to pitch to contact rather than nibbling at the corners until he has no choice but to come in with stuff that is no longer indomitable.
Here’s one humble suggestion, one that may not be well received but yet seems poignantly necessary to me. Perhaps it is time to end one of the most endearing traditions in Seattle sports: The fans in King’s Court standing, waving their K placards and chanting, “K! K! K!” every time Hernandez gets to two strikes.
When that practice started in 2011, in the wake of Hernandez’s Cy Young season of 2010, it was pure marketing genius, a perfect way to celebrate Hernandez’s popularity and ability. And let me hasten to add, I don’t want to discontinue the King’s Court itself. As long as people still enjoy it, why deny fans an opportunity for bonding and camaraderie while rooting on a cherished player?
Yet at a time when the Mariners are trying to hammer into Hernandez that he is no longer the fireballing strikeout master of years past, it simply doesn’t make sense to encourage and promote that mindset.
This is something that manager Scott Servais recognized in spring training when he said, “You get ahead in the count, throw a fastball low and away and take a fly ball to right field – that works, too. I love the King’s Court. I get all that. But the minute those people get on their feet and start screaming for a strikeout – he’s human. I would probably do the same thing. Try to give them what they want.”
What they really want above all, I’d assume, is a winning, effective Hernandez. And at this point in time, that’s antithetical to the mythical being still being summoned every five days at Safeco Field in the third-base corner.
I’m not sure what that would entail in King’s Court. Placards that say “Fly ball to right” or “Weak grounder to short” just don’t have the same chanting power. Perhaps wearing gold King Felix T-shirts, basking in his presence and cheering for his outs will have to suffice.
I told you this re-imagination business was not going to be easy. Yet it could still be incredibly rewarding, all the way around. Remember, Hernandez adjusted once before, when he developed the changeup after his velocity dipped from 98 mph to the 94-95 range. It catapulted Hernandez to even greater heights, and showed Hernandez is capable of change.
Asked if he envisioned Hernandez’s return to ace status, general manager Jerry Dipoto bristled slightly.
“I won’t even go there,’’ he said. “I don’t how many more times we can ask that question. Nothing’s out of the question when you’re talking about guys who have been to the top of the mountain. He just needs to figure out where he is stuff-wise and how to apply the stuff that he has.
“Because he still has plenty. He’s still up to 93 miles an hour. He’s got a nasty change-up. His breaking balls work. You know, he hasn’t found consistent results, but all the elements are there. He just needs to reinvent how he puts the pitches in order, and I trust that he has enough pride in what he does and enough care about his legacy that he’ll figure that out. He’s been too good not to.”
It seems like it’s time for his fans to do their small part to help.
|The Felix file|
|This season, his 13th year in Seattle, has been a fall off for longtime Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Here are the numbers:|
|Seasons||ERA||K’s per 9 innings||HRs per 9 innings|