Felix Hernandez may not throw with the velocity he did when he came up as 19-year-old phenom. But all the other elements of pitching artistry – variety of pitches, movement, savvy, and that mystical sixth sense – are still in peak form.

Share story

PEORIA, Ariz. – To get at the greatness of Felix Hernandez, Lloyd McClendon starts, of all places, with an anecdote about Miguel Cabrera.

One time, when he was the Tigers’ hitting coach, McClendon watched in awe as Cabrera hit a home run off a first-pitch changeup. He asked Cabrera how he did it.

“Well, I just knew it was coming,’’ Cabrera replied.

Pressed by McClendon, Cabrera elaborated, “I saw it before he threw it … I guess that’s kind of weird, huh?”

Weird, and special – an innate quality that only the greats have. Which brings us back to Hernandez.

“Felix is the same way as a pitcher,’’ McClendon said. “He sees things from hitters before it’s happening. He has a great feel for it. That’s a gift from above. Everyone just doesn’t have that.

“Like I told Cabrera, ‘Yeah, it’s a little freaky.’ It’s a God-given talent. Not a lot of people have that, to see the pitch before it comes out of the hand. I think Felix has that same type of feel.”

Hernandez, it turns out, knows exactly what McClendon is getting at when you ask him about it.

“I don’t know why, but I realize when hitters are looking for something, and just throw another pitch,’’ he said.

It sounds almost like sorcery. I asked Hernandez if he is ever wrong in these intuitions.

“Sometimes. I’m human.”

To hitters, that might be debatable. Hernandez, at age 28 (soon to be 29, on April 8), is still in the sweet spot of pitching dominance. He may not throw with the velocity he did when he came up as a 19-year-old phenom. But all the other elements of pitching artistry – variety of pitches, movement, savvy, and that mystical sixth sense – are still in peak form.

“Back in the day, when I was a young kid, I was just throwing hard,’’ Hernandez said. “I didn’t have the stuff I have now. I think I’m a better pitcher now.”

Hernandez, unbelievably, will begin his 11th major-league season when he steps to the mound on April 6 to pitch the opener against the Angels. A lot of mileage has been racked up on that golden right arm – seven straight seasons of 200-plus innings, preceded by two in the 190s.

If there’s any nagging concern around Hernandez, it’s that the workload will eventually take a toll. That’s the way it works in baseball, right? For mortals, it is. But just like there are savants who can divine what a pitcher or hitter is going to do, there are a precious few exceptions, like Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan, who defy age.

Perhaps Hernandez is one of those freaks of nature. He says he’s not at all concerned about all those innings catching up to him.

“No. No,’’ Hernandez said emphatically. “It doesn’t worry me because of all the work I put in in the offseason, all the work I put in during the season, trying to stay healthy.”

Last year was a brilliant one for Hernandez, perhaps his best yet, though it somehow wasn’t rewarded with a Cy Young Award.

It’s safe to say that omission still rankles King Felix, who was at Safeco Field that day for what was expected to be a coronation. Instead, Hernandez appeared shellshocked when he faced the media right after the announcement that Cleveland’s Corey Kluber had beaten him out.

“It was a disappointment, but you know what? It gave me more motivation to go into the offseason and work hard and have an even better year than I had last year,’’ he said. “So I’m ready for that.’’

When it’s suggested to Hernandez that his start against Toronto on Sept. 23, when he gave up eight runs (four earned) in 42/3 innings in a damaging 10-2 loss, cost him the award, he bristled.

“Why? Why? What about the other 16 straight?” (He had a major-league-record streak of 16 straight starts of seven or more innings and two or fewer runs from May 18 to Aug. 11.)

Hernandez still hasn’t pitched in the postseason, which remains his overriding goal. He says the way the 2014 season ended – with the Mariners one game behind Oakland for the second wild card – was agonizing. But it left him more convinced than ever that his playoff time is coming fast.

“Actually, it was not a disappointing year,’’ Hernandez said. “It was a great year for everyone. We came close, but we didn’t make it. It’s always in your head, but I just turned the page. When I saw they signed (Nelson) Cruz, with all the talent we have now, I was saying, ‘We’re going to get there.’ ”

Hernandez reported to camp appearing to be in great shape. He realizes that’s a necessity as he nears 30.

“It feels like 40,’’ he joked. “No, just kidding. I still feel young. I feel fine.”

Before hitting his winter workout regimen, Hernandez and his family – wife Sandra and children Mia and Jeremy – took a vacation to Turkey, Austria and the Czech Republic, a change from their original plan to safari in Africa.

I asked him why he didn’t go to a more traditional locale, like the Bahamas.

“We went to the Bahamas already,’’ he replied. “The trip was great. We saw a lot of castles, a lot of history.”

Amazingly, Hernandez was recognized by a Turkish man while at a marketplace in that country.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I think I know you.’ I said, ‘Me?’ He said, “Are you a baseball player?’ I was amazed.’’

Such is the level of fame for Hernandez, who has reached the upper echelon of elite status in MLB circles. He’s done it because, as McClendon says, “He probably sees things a little differently than most pitchers.”

As the manager noted, it’s a gift. And for the Mariners, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.