Now that Hernandez has been relegated to the bullpen, the burning question becomes how he responds moving forward. The answer to that will go a long way toward determining whether Hernandez, at age 32, can resurrect his career.
In demoting Felix Hernandez on Thursday, Mariners manager Scott Servais did what everyone knew he had to do – including, I’d suspect, Felix Hernandez in his heart of hearts.
To watch Hernandez these days, on and off the mound, is to see a broken man, one whose inner pain is visible. And understandably so – his aura, his image, his very identity, is slowly being stripped away, and Hernandez seems powerless to stop it.
But now that Hernandez has been relegated to the bullpen, the burning question becomes how he responds moving forward. The answer to that will go a long way toward determining whether Hernandez, at age 32, can resurrect his career. With one more season left on his contract at $27 million for 2019, the Mariners have considerable stake in this outcome.
For starters, they have to hope he responds better than Matt Harvey, who was defiant and sulked when the Mets yanked him from the rotation in April after four miserable starts. That resulted in Harvey being designated for assignment in short order and then traded to Cincinnati, where he has returned to a starting role with moderate success.
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My hunch, based on more than a decade around the guy, is that there will be no petulance from Hernandez, but rather soul-searching from the stark realization that his days as a staff ace have truly ended. He may realize now he has to fight and change merely to survive.
But even with a willing attitude, there is no guarantee this will have a positive outcome. Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana are prime recent examples of Cy Young-caliber pitchers who simply burned out at a similar age as Hernandez, and never made it back. The biggest difference is that their decline was fueled by injury, a shoulder in Santana’s case and hip in Lincecum’s. Hernandez, as far as we know, is healthy.
That makes his fall more puzzling, but perhaps also more apt for a revival. Sure, there is a steep price to pay after making 30-plus starts for 10 consecutive years, with 190 or more innings each time, from age 20 to 29. One’s arm can stay at full power for only so long, unless your name is Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. And you can question if Hernandez worked hard enough to stave off age-related decline. But I’m in the camp that believes Hernandez still has enough stuff to become a viable starter once again – almost certainly not an ace, but serviceable, unlike the train wreck of 2018.
There are two primary roads back to respectability for Hernandez – a reinvention of his pitching style as a starter, or a new career as a reliever. Both will require a full buy-in, which Hernandez might finally be ready to offer now that the reality of his plight is sinking in. For as long as we’ve been discussing the need for Felix to embrace a new M.O. – a topic that dates to 2015 – and despite some halfhearted acknowledgement by Hernandez, one got the impression that deep down he still believed he could power his way back to his old form.
I would assume he’s been dissuaded of that notion, at last. Examples of flamethrowers who succeeded after the thunder left their arm include Frank Tanana, who in the mid-1970s was described by Sparky Anderson as having “the finest left-handed arm I had ever seen.” Tanana led the American League with 269 strikeouts in 1975, the only time from 1972-79 that anyone but Ryan led the AL in strikeouts. Eventually, elbow problems derailed him, and Tanana re-emerged as a finesse pitcher who went on to win 240 games, the bulk of them in his new persona.
A more apt comparison might be the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, who once threw in the upper 90s, like Hernandez, and now barely reaches 90, like Hernandez. Sabathia, too, changed his style to rely more on location, movement and changing speeds. Significantly, he eschewed his four-seam fastball, once the centerpiece of his repertoire, and replaced it with a cutter, which has been extremely effective. The result is that Sabathia is once again a reliable starter for the Yankees at age 37, going 14-5 with a 3.69 earned-run average last year, and 6-4, 3.49 this year.
Astros starter Justin Verlander is a fascinating case. After a couple of struggling, injury-plagued years with the Tigers in 2014-15 with diminishing velocity, he eventually regained his No. 1-starter form. A Sports Illustrated story last year from Tom Verducci provides some insight that should resonate with Hernandez. Referring to being challenged by then-manager Brad Ausmus, Verducci wrote:
The two men began to talk, and as they did, Ausmus figured out what truly was missing in his ace’s game: Verlander still was relying only on his instincts and observations to get people out, when an entire world of data was out there to help him. The conversation opened Verlander’s eyes and mind. He began seeking out pitch data, keeping his own handwritten statistics and notes, and visiting a pitching guru of modern data-based mechanics to learn about spin rates, release points and arm health.
The article detailed how such an analytical focus, plus the use of a super-high-speed camera when he got to Houston, helped Verlander develop a deadly slider that has been instrumental in his sustained success. Would Hernandez be open to using these techniques? If not now, then when?
Certainly, Hernandez’s preference will be to reinvent himself as a starter. But there have been many examples of successful starters who forged a new life in the bullpen in their 30s, most notably Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, but also the likes of Kerry Wood and Tom Gordon (whose son, Dee, now shares a clubhouse with Hernandez). It’s possible that the new relief role could be liberating for Hernandez, both mentally and physically.
Yes, it’s possible. But there are no guarantees as Hernandez enters this uncertain new world of bullpen limbo. How he proceeds from here will be of major importance to the Mariners, both in their current playoff run and when they reconvene to try again next year.