It’s no secret that Felix Hernandez was a broken pitcher last year, when the cracks and fissures from previous seasons finally led to a collapse. The numbers screamed it. Your eyes revealed it, even if your heart tried to reject that notion.
But Hernandez himself never conceded that reality, not publicly anyway. He was too proud, or too stubborn, or both. In fact, he seemed to dig in his heels and double down in his efforts to prove he could still win while doing it his way.
In many ways, it was a facade. Hernandez can admit that now, increasingly comfortable in the reinvention — more like the resurrection — of his career.
His mechanics were awry, he said. More importantly, his confidence was shot, he now concedes. Hernandez’s mind was filled with doubts that had never been present during his long stint as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, and which he had held at bay as success steadily waned in recent years.
“I had a conversation with my wife — do I really have to take it home?,” he said last week.
Sandra Hernandez assured her husband he wasn’t done yet. And this offseason, Felix was finally at a place mentally to accept what the Mariners had been trying to tell him for a few years — that he needed to change much of what had made him a Cy Young pitcher.
It was either that, or take it home. So flash forward to 2019, when Hernandez has been surprisingly successful in revamping his pitching style at age 33, in Season No. 15 in the major leagues.
I use the word “surprising” because after a lackluster spring, many expected a crash-and-burn season from Hernandez in which the Mariners would face the unpleasant business of cutting loose one of their franchise icons.
Instead, he has been an asset. On Tuesday, after striking out eight for the second straight game in a no-decision against the Chicago Cubs, Hernandez smiled and said, “I still got it.”
He’s not vintage King Felix — that guy is never coming back — but Hernandez has been encouragingly effective. Throw out one disastrous start while fighting illness, and his ERA is a serviceable 3.86 in the other five starts.
On Monday, Hernandez will square off at Yankee Stadium against CC Sabathia, a particularly poignant matchup. Sabathia has long been held up as the person for Hernandez to emulate — a former hard thrower who carved a successful second act to his career after his velocity waned.
“It’s kind of the same thing that’s happening to me right now,’’ Hernandez said. “I was a fireballer, but now I have to locate my fastball and mix my pitches. That’s what CC does. He’s a complete pitcher, a Hall of Famer. Facing him is going to be awesome. He definitely motivated me.”
The biggest transformation for Hernandez has been in pitch selection. Where once he relied on a diabolical changeup that worked brilliantly in concert with his electric fastball, he finally became convinced that pattern was no longer effective. Not with a fastball that not only had dipped in velocity, but that he struggled to command.
Instead, Hernandez’s out pitch has been a curveball he throws 34% of the time, compared with 14% in his Cy Young 2010 season. He’s striking out 8.3 per nine innings, up from 7.2 last year.
“He’s gotten a lot of them with the curveball, but the curveball has also set up the other strikeouts,’’ manager Scott Servais said. “Where you slide a fastball in there, or now he’s able to get a swing at the changeup because he’s not throwing quite as many changeups, which is a good thing.”
Cole Hamels of the Cubs watched approvingly from the other dugout when he faced Hernandez on Tuesday at T-Mobile Park.
“It’s just like Felix. He definitely knows how to throw his curveball well and you cannot take that lightly,’’ Hamels said. “You have to have in the back of your mind that he still can throw a fastball, so you are in-between, and as pitchers, that’s where we want hitters to be, because that’s where we can take advantage.
“I think in this new game he’s realizing you don’t need to throw as many fastballs to succeed. I think he’s kind of noticed that as he’s gotten older and more experienced. He’s got one of the best changeups I’ve ever seen, so now if you add that curveball in there, and he can definitely throw that 90 mph sinker, three pitches, you don’t know which one to sit on.”
Hernandez has walked just four in 31 1/3 innings, a huge factor in his improvement. It has kept him away from the big innings that derailed his 2018 season.
“I have better mechanics,’’ he said. “I command my fastball way better than what I did last year. Last year, I was living in the middle of the plate. That’s why I was getting hurt.
“It was a mechanical problem, maybe a little frustration, and a loss of confidence. But now I’m confident, and I know I can do it, and I’m happy.”
Accordingly, you can see Hernandez’s spirit and spunk return along with his results. He noted several times how happy he is. Servais commented on how engaged Hernandez is during and after games, and how well he communicates with catcher Omar Narvaez. The funk that crept in last year when he was briefly removed from the rotation has been replaced by the return of his more familiar playfulness.
It is currently tempered by concern over his family in strife-ridden Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaidó is trying to overthrow president Nicolas Maduro.
“When I go out and pitch, I forget about everything,’’ he said. “But I still have family there. I’m a little worried. I just talked to my mom, she said she’s fine. Nothing is going on around the house. But it’s a mess. A big mess.”
Hernandez flashed some characteristic King Felix defiance when it was noted he is proving doubters wrong.
“I know people were talking crap about me, that I’m done, whatever,” he said. “I don’t have to prove to anybody. I have to do it for myself. I’ve done my thing already. I’ve done it for the last 11 years. I’ve just got to continue doing it.”
If he does, it could lead to another delicate situation. Would the Mariners, in the midst of a step back season, trade Hernandez to a contender? To do so would require Felix — in the final year of his seven-year, $175-million contract — to waive his no-trade clause. He said he’s not ready to address that question yet.
“We’ll see what’s going to happen,’’ he said. “I’m not thinking about that yet. I’ve just got to continue pitching the way I’m pitching right now, and that’s all that matters.
“I don’t know if this is going to be my last year here. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
What has happened so far is a regal detour in what had been Hernandez’s descent toward oblivion.