As the Mariners fight for a playoff spot, Hernandez fights for his job, knowing another shellacking Thursday likely will bump him from the starting rotation.
You’re not going to find out what’s on Felix Hernandez’s mind by asking him to reflect. You’re not going to get a read on his emotions by poking or prodding or probing.
No, if you want to know how the worst season of the Mariners pitcher’s career is weighing on him, you pay attention to what he isn’t saying. Because in 2018, it seems his words have never been more sparse.
“He’s quiet. He’s not himself. He’s not happy,” said Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. “I spend a lot of time with our guys — I’ve never seen him this down.”
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How do you cope when, after a decade of causing hitters to quake in their boots, you’ve now got them licking their lips? How does a Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star handle going from beast to burden?
As Hernandez’s team fights for a playoff spot, he fights for his job, knowing another shellacking Thursday likely will bump him from the starting rotation. When you were on a Hall of Fame track just a couple years ago, what does that feel like?
“It’s tough for me, man. I can’t be thinking about it,” Hernandez said. “I got another start Thursday, so I got to go out there and do my job.”
Warning: The following numbers might be disturbing to some readers. In 21 starts this year, Hernandez has a career-high 5.58 ERA, a career-high 1.407 WHIP, a career-low WAR of -0.9 and just eight games in which he has made it through six innings. Last week against the Angels, he allowed seven earned runs in 2 2/3 innings in what M’s manager Scott Servais called a “non-competitive” outing.
A game such as that would zap the pride of any man, let alone the Mariners’ best pitcher of the millennium. But it would pale to the ego slam of being relegated to the bullpen or disabled list.
Then again, this might not be about ego for Hernandez. It is likely more about keeping his career-long goal of pitching in the postseason afloat.
Stottlemyre said that, on Tuesday, Felix once again told him he wants to get to the playoffs and contribute. That’s generally not a statement you volunteer without fear it might not happen.
Unfortunately for the 14th-year veteran, that fear is very real. The chances of him being a spectator for the rest of the season have gone from doubtful to questionable to on the brink of probable.
And unlike that of seasons past, there are no calf strains or shoulder injuries to point to. There’s just Felix, his arm and his mind.
“Last year I was hurt, the year before I was hurt, and now I’m healthy and the results are not what I want,” said Hernandez, 32. “I just got to figure out how to go out there and compete.”
Do you get tired of people repeatedly bringing up your struggles?
“If I’m not doing my job, there are going to be some questions that come.”
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Hernandez is even capable of finding consistency at this point. His fastball command has gone Jimmy Hoffa on him, which neutralizes his once-lethal changeup. Pitch maps also suggest a fear of hard contact, with the percentage of pitches low and away noticeably exceeding that of his prime years.
As Stottlemyre said: “If you miss your spots, you’re gonna tend to shy away from that pitch, and that can lead to non-aggressive pitches.”
Pitching non-aggressively is baseball’s equivalent to football’s prevent defense. Fearing the big play will lead to the little ones gnawing away at you.
If Hernandez is going to keep his spot, he’s going to have to try to win the job instead of not losing it — although that’s a lot easier to write on a laptop than it is to internalize on a mound.
We don’t know if Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has plans to acquire another starting pitcher. We don’t know if or when he is going to call Erasmo Ramirez up from Tacoma, either.
All we know is that a quality start is essential to Felix’s immediate future with the Mariners, and perhaps to his peace of mind, too.
Do you pay attention to the Mariners’ potential trade targets or any of that stuff?
Hernandez shakes his head.
“I know what I can do.”
Time to show it. Time to show it like no other time in his career.
Felix has been quiet throughout the season. Thursday is his chance to make his critics be the same.