2016 was not a vintage Felix Hernandez season. Hernandez went 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA for the Mariners, making just 25 starts and missing six weeks with a calf injury. At age 30, can he make the necessary adjustments this offseason to bounce back?
The picture elicited an array of emotions: Sympathy, regret, disappointment and anger.
On that chilly Saturday night in October when the Mariners were eliminated from the 2016 postseason with a heart-piercing 9-8 loss to the Oakland A’s in 10 innings, Felix Hernandez sat atop the dugout steps of Safeco Field by himself. The crowd was largely gone. His teammates were in the clubhouse. Yet Hernandez remained. He leaned over the rail of the dugout, staring out at the place he loved most — the pitcher’s mound — mourning yet another season of his career gone by without a playoff pitch thrown.
“I didn’t want to leave,” he admitted.
It’s been a longstanding lament for fans to bemoan the idea of Hernandez being robbed of his chance to pitch in the postseason. A Mariners’ organization mired in mediocrity thanks to poor decisions and worse development for much of his prime years is fairly blamed for that.
But it’s also instructive to point out that had Hernandez simply been a little better this season, a little closer to his old level of production, he might not have been lost in “what might have been.”
This goes beyond a tired narrative of Hernandez not pitching well in important games. It goes to the entirety of a lost 2016 season that Hernandez admitted wasn’t acceptable.
“It was not good,” he said.
There was shared discontent.
“It hasn’t been a great season for Felix,” manager Scott Servais said bluntly on the final day of the season.
Hernandez missed six weeks with a calf injury, making just 25 starts and finishing with an 11-8 record and a 3.82 ERA.
Is this a hint of the future? It’s become grudgingly accepted that Hernandez is no longer the dominating perennial Cy Young contender of past years. But will the decline continue? Will he slowly devolve into what amounts to be a No. 4 starter with a massive contract — $79 million over the next three seasons? Or is he willing to evolve as a pitcher and competitor?
At age 30, he has reached a transitional point in his career. The game is no longer as simple as he once made it look. His body has changed. The mileage on his arm has sapped his velocity. His signature delivery is not as easily repeated. His command wanders and disappears. His performances have become less predictable.
It’s something that happens to power-type pitchers as the innings build over time. Once they reach around 10 years in the big leagues or the 2,000 innings threshold, they are unable to maintain that profile from usage or injury.
But pitchers, particularly ones with Hernandez’s natural talent, can adapt and re-engage in the war against time and age to stave off the impending loss. It’s not a simple process. It takes a total commitment in all aspects — mental, physical and professional. The ones that can do that find their way to Cooperstown. The ones that can’t or won’t might remain generationally great, but never elevate to the all-time elite.
Hernandez’s attachment to the persona of King Felix is palpable. To those who know him, it’s difficult to believe he can accept less than that lofty stature. And that may be what ultimately drives him forward into a needed change.
With the Mariners’ window of optimal success shrinking to perhaps this season and next, Hernandez’s oft-mentioned desire to pitch in the postseason could hinge largely on his efforts in 2017. Will he be leaning on the dugout rail at the end of the season in lament, or jumping over it in celebration?
What went wrong in 2016?
The struggles of 2016 weren’t some unprecedented fall off a precipice. Hernandez had been trending this way, starting in 2015
Following a 2014 where he perhaps should have won the American League Cy Young, Hernandez had a respectable 2015 season, highlighted by an 18-9 record and two shutouts. But a 3.53 earned run average was his highest since 2007. He failed to reach 200 strikeouts and barely made it to the 200-inning mark while his home run rate per nine innings was its highest ever (1.03) and walk rate increased (7.0 percent) to the highest it had been since 2011 and his strikeout rate (23.1 percent) was the lowest since 2012.
That downward trend continued this season. His strikeout rate dropped to 18.6 percent — the lowest of his career — while his walk rate climbed to 9.9 percent — the highest of his career — to go with a 1.12 home run per nine innings ratio. His walks plus hits per innings pitched grew to 1.32, highest since 2008. He walked four-plus batters in seven of his starts, including two games with five and one with six.
“I was disappointed for sure,” he said. “I’m the guy who likes to throw 200 innings and get the most games I can and the most strikeouts I can.”
While labeling his season a disappointment, Hernandez was quick to point to the calf strain that put him on the disabled list for the first time since 2007 as a reason for some of the issues.
Hernandez suffered the injury while working out before a game on May 31. What was hoped to be quick recovery lingered till mid-July.
But even before the injury, Hernandez’s mechanical issues were evident to the point that he even relented to throwing some bullpen sessions in between starts in hopes of remedying them.
“You know how he is — he’ll tinker when things aren’t going right,” pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said.
After vowing to fix the issues after the 2015 season, the mechanical issues were never really solved, pre or post injury. And it was obvious, primarily with his fastball. Already down in velocity, he couldn’t command it for quality strikes.
“What happens is that guys realize they have less room for error, stuff-wise over the plate then what they try to do is get more (from their delivery) or make pitches that they shouldn’t be making,” Stottlemyre said. “It can lead to getting sideways with your mechanics and you get off.”
Hernandez’s mechanics, which aren’t exactly derived from a book on pitching fundamentals, were “off” far too often for optimal success.
“You look at how he works, he’s got a lot of moving parts,” Stottlemyre said. “The thing that gets him in trouble out of all the things that go on with his delivery is when he gets his head away from his arm and he gets that distance or gap as he’s going down the slope. And what happens as soon as that heads get off line and his arm gets away from him, he loses command of the baseball. It’s fairly simple.”
It was something that Stottlemyre identified early, mentioned often and convinced Hernandez to work on in those bullpen sessions. There was some progress.
“He can feel it on side days,” Stottlemyre said. “He was really good when I convinced him to get up in the bullpen and just work fastball command … and having a feeling of what adjustments he needs to make. The problem is when you get into a game and you get between the white lines and the adrenaline kicks in and things get going faster, sometimes he couldn’t control it.”
Per Brooks Baseball, Hernandez’s strike percentage with his fastball was 20.51 percent and 27.12 percent with his sinker. In 2014, it was 27.54 percent for the fastball and 31.33 percent with the sinker.
Opposing scouts noticed the same deficiencies and lack of command. Opposing hitters — particularly the Astros and Rangers — modified their approach, refusing to swing at anything that looked to be in bottom half of the strike zone. The thinking was that if the pitch were a changeup or one of his two breaking pitches, it would dart out of the strike zone for a ball. And if it was a fastball, it would likely be off the plate. So opponents waited him out and forced him to bring the ball up in the zone.
“It was just so glaring, and I did my best to get through to him, and I will continue into next year, is that everybody was looking at him up,” Stottlemyre said. “So if he was throwing his changeup below the zone and out of the zone where it wasn’t a strike out of the hand, clubs just spit on it. It was the same with his fastball. You look at the games that he struggled and clubs really made him work. The looked for him up in the zone and when stuff was down below, they just spit on it. They pigeon-holed him. “
If you do the same thing to major league hitters, over and over, they will sniff you out.” - GM Jerry Dipoto
Hernandez was throwing the bulk of his pitches low and away, off the plate in hopes of hitters chasing and avoiding solid contact. When he was able to command his pitches to the corners of the plate, that approach was effective. But the mechanical issues and meandering command from start to start wouldn’t allow him to maintain that success. Hitters recognized it.
“He pigeon-holed himself to one spot of the strike zone much more than he ever has,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “He didn’t throw in very often. He didn’t elevate very often. He stayed mostly in the same zone all year long. And if you do the same thing to major league hitters, over and over, they will sniff you out.”
How to fix it?
In the simplest of terms: This is the most important offseason in Hernandez’s career.
Servais did something that few men in his spot have done before — offered a level of constructive criticism and challenged him to be better, to be the ace and workhorse of the staff.
“But to do that with where he’s at in his career, he’s going to have to make a few adjustments in the offseason and come into spring training in a little better shape with a little more urgency because we certainly need him to be at the top of the rotation,” Servais said. “He’s kind of at that point in his career where he’s going to have to make a few adjustments to get the results that he wants.”
The adjustments are based on preparation, starting with a commitment to a more intensive conditioning program, followed by a more typical throwing program in spring to focus on his mechanics and punctuated with a more diligent routine in between starts during the season.
Usually resistant to modifying a firm routine that yielded past success, Hernandez admitted change was needed.
“I’m going to prepare myself more for next year,” he said.
He was noncommittal as to what exactly that will entail, mentioning an adjustment to his offseason conditioning that would get his legs stronger. He has asked to throw a handful of innings in the Venezuelan winter league to work on his mechanics and prepare to throw in the World Baseball Classic.
At this point, the Mariners would be accepting of anything that might accelerate his preparation. Hernandez saw firsthand how Robinson Cano started highly-intensive offseason regimen and the results it yielded. Nelson Cruz’s workouts in the offseason are even more difficult.
“He was going to go see some specialists to point him in the right direction similar to what Robbie did,” Dipoto said. “He realizes now that he can’t just throw his glove on the field and be that guy.”
Hernandez made a body transformation before the 2007 season, trimming off 30 pounds of fat and erasing “Fat Felix” from his memory. But this will be more difficult. He must add strength to his frame, particularly in his legs and core area. He doesn’t have to be “Ripped Felix” but it must be a noticeable gain.
“The lifting and getting your legs and core as strong as you can physically get them and having that as much of a factor as what has gone sideways and then work on the mechanics,” Stottlemyre said. “It’s important that he does get stronger and works on some of his physically deficiencies. Things that are going to help carry him over the season.”
His awesome natural ability is no longer enough. He has to learn to grind out workouts like many of his lesser talented peers. It’s not a luxury, but a necessity.
“You get out of this game what you put into it,” Servais said. “I’m a firm believer in that. That’s everybody, not just Felix.”
And that’s just a foundation for the revamped preparation. It must carry over into his throwing program in spring training, which had been at his own pace in the past, and then followed into routine from start to start.
The mere mention of Roy Halladay as a pitcher for Hernandez to emulate brought excitement to the voice of Dipoto and Stottlemyre. Perhaps no pitcher in this recent era put more commitment into preparation for a season, for each start than the two-time Cy Young winner.
“He’s a great example,” Stottlemyre said. “He was command guy that can do some freakish things with the baseball like Felix can as far as cutting it and sinking it and moving down and up. Some of it was natural, but the rest of it was by design with his work habits and how he prepared. I watched him go out and run to make himself tired prior to doing a bullpen. He wanted to feel what all the good pitchers feel in their last two or three innings.”
A closer example is Hisashi Iwakuma, who at age 35 and with reduced velocity and stuff, has managed to find success. From the day after he starts, Iwakuma is diligent in preparing for his next start. It’s a honed routine that features conditioning, film study, studying scouting reports and constant maintenance of his mechanics.
“He knows that in order for him to be on top of his game and keep up with the younger players in the league, he’s got to work his butt off,” Stottlemyre said. “I would really love to see Felix buy into that. I don’t want to say that he doesn’t do anything. That he doesn’t care, because I know he does. But he’s going to have to commit himself to a little different routine and understand that he’s a different pitcher in this day and age.”
A return to royalty?
The evaluation of Hernandez’s future by those in the Mariners organization isn’t meant to disparage, but encourage. The team’s postseason fortunes are tied to his ability to again find his typical level of success or something close to it.
“I think sometimes you need to take a step back in order to move forward,” Dipoto said. “There was no way to deny that this was step back, that 2016 wasn’t Felix’s best season. I think it gives him an opportunity to kind of refocus himself, look at where he is and take a step forward.”
Will it provide the motivation for a change?
“I think Felix is going to come back and be ready to pitch,” Dipoto said. “There is no doubt in my mind. I think Felix learned a lot this year. He learned a lot about where he was in his career. He learned a lot about what needs to come next. As important as anything, Felix is a competitor. I think he’s going to go home and put himself in the best position to compete that he can. Because he knows he has to. He wants to be a part of the Venezuelan team in the WBC, the ace of the Mariners. It’s important to him. I think his legacy is important to him and I think this team is important to him.”
As he stood in front of his locker on the final day of the season, answering questions concerning his performance and preparation that hadn’t been leveled before, the aura of King Felix seemed diminished and defensive. And as the media scrum left, he started to clean out his locker with the regular season done and no postseason ahead. It’s been an every-year occurrence for him.
“I’m going to show everybody that doesn’t believe in me,” he said, “that I’m still Felix.”