M’s fans may hate to admit it, but the signs of decline stick out like an Oscar Mayer product at Whole Foods. So should they be distressed, or can the King still regain his regal form?
Hall of Fame boxing writer Jerry Izenberg remembers the time he tried to warn a 38-year-old Muhammad Ali. The former champion of the world was getting set to challenge Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title when Izenberg, skeptical of Ali’s ability at his age, begged him not to do it.
Ali responded by taking his shirt off and revealing a physique identical to the one he had as a 22-year-old fighting Sonny Liston.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Izenberg said.
Which brings us to Felix Hernandez.
After having the worst year of his career, the Mariners’ ace spent the offseason packing 17 pounds of muscle onto his frame. He’d log two-hour sessions in the weight room with medicine balls and elastic bands while training under a guy named “Iron.”
The result was a buffed-out body that we’re not accustomed to seeing on Hernandez, who wasn’t previously known for his work ethic. The question is: Will any of that actually help?
At 31, Felix is seven years younger than Ali was when Holmes TKO’d him in the 10th. But with 2,4152/3 innings pitched, Hernandez has thrown more innings than all but four active pitchers in MLB.
More pertinently, his average four-seam fastball last year (a career-low 90.5 mph) was more than three miles slower than his career average, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.88, also a career low) was nearly twice as bad as the previous year.
M’s fans might hate to admit it, but the signs of decline stick out like an Oscar Mayer product at Whole Foods. So should they be distressed, or can the King still regain his regal form?
The case against
It’s important to note that the odds are overwhelmingly high that Hernandez will at least be a serviceable starter this season. But this column is asking whether he can return to his All-Star caliber self, which appears to be crucial to Seattle’s playoff hopes. The unfortunate part is that a starting pitcher’s 30s often mark the beginning of his career’s downturn.
Fangraphs.com, a respected baseball analytics site, notes a conspicuous descent in a starting pitcher’s fastball and strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate during his early 30s. And considering he came into the big leagues at 19, Felix’s arm likely resembles someone 3-4 years his senior. Commendable as his workout regimen has been, it’s not necessarily going to give his pitches extra zip.
A lap around an MLB clubhouse will tell you that pitchers aren’t generally archetypes of fitness.
When it comes to the fastball, you either have it or you don’t. And while Hernandez hasn’t lost it yet, it’s been atrophying at what might be an irreversible rate.
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More significantly, Hernandez did lose his command for much of last season. Weight training doesn’t have a direct effect on a pitcher’s mechanics, and given Felix’s career-high walk rate of 3.8 per nine innings last year, those mechanics are in need of repair. That lack of control played heavily into Hernandez’s monstrous 4.63 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) score, which is the stat generally used to measure a pitcher’s true effectiveness.
When CC Sabathia’s FIP shot above 4.0 for the first time, it remained there for the next three seasons. Greg Maddux’s FIP was under 3.0 for seven straight seasons, then over 3.0 for the next 10
So was Hernandez’s 2016 the first pimple of an imminent outbreak? Not necessarily.
The case for
Look at a guy like Kevin Brown, who was a decent-to-good pitcher for the first seven years of his career, then surged at the age of 31, when he finished second in the National League Cy Young voting. He would finish third two years later.
Or better yet, look at a guy like Justin Verlander, who had a Hernandez-like slump in 2013 and 2014 (his WHIP was 1.315 and 1.398 those years) only to finish second in the AL Cy Young voting at the age of 33 last year.
It’s very possible that the offseason training — particularly the time spent focusing on his lower body — will give Felix’s fastball a smidgen of extra heat. The bigger question, though, is whether that extra work signifies a renewed focus for Hernandez in every aspect of the game.
By his own admission, Hernandez can be stubborn when it comes to making changes to his pitching style. However, if he can let go and truly be coached, Mariners fans might have reason to hope. Because while it’s true that average pitchers drop off at this point in their careers, many of the great ones (Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan, to name a couple) only got better.
Felix has been great before, but can he be great again?
We know he’s worked harder than ever. Now we wait to see if that matters.